Frustration with Wireless Service, Who would have thought?

[What follows is a rant about AT&T. If you only want to read my positive and useful posts, please come back for another entry another day.]

I’m not your average consumer when it comes to cellular service. I’ve been working with cellular phones for almost 25 years and worked for QUALCOMM for 4 years on a variety of projects. We’ve been on the same AT&T plan for a number of years now (12 GB of data per month for 2 lines) and thought that was adequate. Recently I saw our usage creep up mostly due to the use of Apple Music. I looked at switching to an unlimited plan and the way to get the best rate was to get a teacher discount as my wife is a teacher. Simple, or so I thought.

In order to get the discount, the account has to be in my wife’s name. I called AT&T to find out how to do this The person I spoke to said that my wife had to be around and we could do it over the phone. No problem, I’d call back when my wife was around. A few days later I called back when my wife was around and was told that I could do the transfer online and the link was emailed to me. I started the process to do it which was straight forward. I got through to the point where my wife was emailed the link to do the transfer (the email was sent to a new address so I had to bother her less). I entered all the information for her to accept responsibility on the account and it got to the credit check part. I pushed the button, but the credit check failed because our credit is frozen. I unfroze her credit on all 3 credit reporting agencies and tried again. No luck. Same cryptic error message. I tried a few more times. The next day I called AT&T and when I explained the situation, I was told that I had to wait 24 hours after unfreezing the credit to try again (the credit reporting agencies say after 15 minutes the credit is unfrozen and that has been my experience in the past). OK, I waited 2 days and tried again. Nope.

Last Monday I called AT&T when my wife was home and the first time, the call got disconnected (no idea why, but things happen). The next time, I spoke with a really nice woman who worked with me, tried the transfer, spoke to my wife, and eventually got in contact with the fraud/credit department (or whatever it is called) and got the approval to finish the transfer. After about an hour, everything was transferred over. I hoped I was done, but I wasn’t. On a side note, it doesn’t appear that they actually did a hard pull on her credit.

After the transfer was all set, I went online, created a new account and linked it to the new account number. Here’s kind of where the second part of the mess began. I turned on paperless billing and setup autopay. I went through the process to add the teacher discount and my wife got confirmation on her work email that it was setup. The online account set my watch as the phone number for account recovery; of course I can’t receive calls at that number because of NumberSync and my attempts to change it failed due to my old account using the same number (my old online account actually had no wireless accounts associated with it). I decided to punt on this for awhile.

Now I had 2 online accounts and really wanted to ditch the old one as it was useless, but it used my phone number as the login (in addition to an email address). The account showed NumberSync for my phone and watch. I made the mistake of unsyncing my watch thinking that it would remove all traces of the wireless accounts from that online account. That was a really stupid move as it actually removed the watch from the wireless account (remember this online account doesn’t actually have access to my wireless account). So I used my phone and tried to setup my watch again. It failed a number of times and at one point it setup a completely new number/account for it. After a number of tries, I called AT&T and while speaking with the rep, my watch was able to sync again. I ask the rep to verify that there were only 4 lines on my account (2 phones, 1 watch and 1 hotspot).

Since I’m a bit paranoid about all this working, I checked my account yesterday. Turns out I had 5 lines on the account; there were 2 watches! Huh? How is it possible to have 2 lines for the same physical device (ignore the devices that have 2 eSIMs)? I called AT&T and reached their offshore tech support and quickly got frustrated because the woman was not all that helpful as I simply wanted to cancel a line and demanded that I speak to a supervisor. I was transferred to a US based support person (note to self, always request a supervisor as my experience with offshore tech support has been poor at best).

The support person I spoke with asked what number I wanted to cancel. I replied that I had no idea because I can’t directly call the watch. I gave her the IMEI of the watch, but presumably she had that listed for BOTH watch accounts. Eventually she was able to remove the watch line that didn’t have recent activity. While I was on the line, I saw in 1 place on the website it said I had paperless billing and wanted to verify that. The rep said that paper billing was active and I had that changed to paperless (that’s a $10/line per month discount with AutoPay); not sure why the website showed it was on when it wasn’t. Then I checked to make sure AutoPay was on as the website was now showing it was off; it was actually on. To top off all of this, I verified that the teacher discount was active. It wasn’t! I had actually gone through the process TWICE before and my wife received confirmation on her work email that it was active. The rep added the discount and on the account I actually now see "Teacher appreciation" which is good.

Where does that leave me? Throughout last week, I’ve been threatening to just switch to Verizon as they offer a teacher discount as well. They also offer a first responder discount which I’m qualified for as I’m a certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT); AT&T’s first responder discount requires me to work for or volunteer for an agency which I don’t. The Verizon unlimited plans are similar to AT&T, but slightly more expensive. Would Verizon give me better support? My AT&T coverage is fine and we’ve had service through them ever since I got an iPhone 6 (and had them a few times before that). Up until this week, I really haven’t had any complaints, but the utter frustration of trying to switch plans and get the teacher discount have made me consider the switch more than once.

While trying to work through this, I visited my AT&T account many times only to have different, incomprehensible error messages presented to me. In addition, I was taken to different links and some help entries gave wrong information about where to find things. The site is extremely slow to load (it isn’t my network) and I kept seeing the loading image every time I navigate to anything. I stumbled upon the Customer Service Summary and it said that my monthly bill was going to be $250 per month! Holy cow. After a search, I found a Reddit thread talking about this and my experience is right in line with others. The summary, however, did show me that AT&T didn’t think I had paperless billing (the website said I did have it). While I’m at it, I got a text message to my hotspot telling me that paperless billing was activated. Huh? Why did my hotspot get a message as it isn’t my primary number (it is interesting that it does get text messages)? The icing on the cake is that I’ve received maybe 15-20 email messages confirming my email address.

Does AT&T care? Probably not. Did they offer me a credit for all the time I spent with this fiasco? Nope. I am probably going to send a letter to the CEO of AT&T to let him know what average customers like me think of their service. I suspect it won’t change anything, but will make me feel better.

The bottom line is that wireless plans and billing systems are so complex and probably so antiquated that anything other than a person signing up from scratch is bound not to work properly. What I’ve done can’t be all that uncommon, can it be? I’m sure if AT&T worked to make their systems more reliable, not throw strange errors and let people handle more things on their own, they could cut down on support. Must be cheaper to just offshore the support than to try to fix the systems. For a fee, I’m available to find things wrong with their systems.

Fixing Display Issues on iPad with HDMI out

Several years ago when Apple released Macs with USB-C connectors, there seemed to be a lot of talk about needing a bunch of dongles to connect things. When I got my first USB-C based Mac, I only had 2 dongles and was content. Over time, I saw various USB-C hubs that had multiple USB-A ports, power delivery, Ethernet and HDMI out. I bought one and used it for everything except the HDMI out as I use an old Thunderbolt Display.

When I bought my 2018 iPad Pro with USB-C, I tried the hub on it, but was told by the support folks that the iPad Pro wasn’t fully supported; I guess the power delivery didn’t work properly. It would have been nice for it to work, but it didn’t really matter to me at the time.

Earlier this year I saw a sale on the Plugable 7-in-1 USB-C hub that had all the ports I’d ever need into SD card slots (I had been working a bit with SD cards at the time, so that seemed convenient). I used the hub with my 2017 MacBook Pro without issues, but never tested the HDMI output as I rarely took my machine anywhere.

Last month we were getting ready to go on a trip and I decided to check the hub to see if I could connect my iPad Pro to our TV in case we wanted to watch a show. The Plugable hub was advertised as iPad Pro compatible, so I had no reason to think it wouldn’t work. When I plugged it in, all the colors were messed up. I plugged in my MacBook Air and it didn’t have any problems.

Messed up display colors

I contacted Plugable’s support and they assured me it was compatible and started going through troubleshooting steps. For our trip, I brought the Plugable adapter as well as my older adapter that didn’t have the same problem. When we wanted to watch a show, I decided to try the Plugable hub and much to my surprise, it worked fine. I sent my findings along with the model number of the TV in our room and thought maybe it was a 4K vs 1080p issue.

When we got home, I tried a few more troubleshooting steps that were recommended to me and didn’t see any change. After much Internet searching, I discovered that when you plug an HDMI display into the iPad Pro, an extra option appears in Displays & Brightness for the display. Under connected displays, there is my TV, the 55R617.

Tapping on the option brought up 3 choices for Preferred Display Setting with the checked one being Dolby Vision. I selected the second option (High Dynamic Range) and boom, the picture problem cleared up!

Preferred Display Setting

I relayed this information to Plugable support and the person I was working with commended me on my sleuthing and said that was exactly the issue as the chipset used in the hub didn’t support Dolby Vision (extra licensing for it) and offered me a refund if I wanted it. I told him it wasn’t necessary (support was great and would definitely recommend their products) as I just wanted to make sure I knew how to work around the issue when I traveled.

Now I can just bring 1 hub for both my iPad Pro and my MacBook Air when I travel and hook up either device to a TV if needed. As long as I remember to bring an HDMI cable (it’s on my packing list), we should be good to watch our own content when we travel.

My Take on the M1 MacBook Air

Years ago Mac laptops were getting so much better every year that I was on a 2-3 year cycle for upgrading my machine. The performance increases helped with my productivity as it reduced compile times for my work. This increase slowed dramatically in the last decade and I stopped buying new machines so often.

When the Retina MacBook Pro was released (2012), I got a fairly loaded one (quad core i7, 16 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD). This machine was a workhorse for me for 5 years. In 2017, I bought a new 15" MacBook Pro that was kind of a mid range machine that was still a quad core i7, but had a higher clock speed. It definitely was faster, but for being 5 years newer, I really had expected more. In any case, I gave my 2012 machine to my wife (she says she doesn’t mind getting older hardware as long as it works; does she really mean it? I hope so!).

For a few years, the 2012 machine has had an indicator saying that the battery needs service, but it can still be used. We’ve ignored that for awhile as it mostly stays connected to power. Two weeks ago, the machine restarted a few times while my wife was using it to teach. My theory was that the battery was on its last legs and when the MagSafe adapter got knocked out, it lost power and restarted. That might not quite be the issue, but started me thinking about what to do with it. We had basically 2 options; option 1 was to replace the battery myself using a battery from iFixit or buy a new computer.

I’ve opened up machines before and replacing a battery should be doable. However, this machine has the battery glued in and was rated as a hard to replace. If anything went wrong, the machine was basically toast. A friend of mine saw a technician replace the battery and advised me against it. Apple put the machine on its obsolete list last year so Apple wouldn’t touch it and authorized repair centers couldn’t get Apple parts for it; so if I wasn’t going to replace the battery, who would? If the battery wasn’t the problem, getting it serviced would be near impossible. It would also be throwing money at a very old computer (9 years is a pretty long life for a laptop).

The second option of buying a new computer was the easier option, but far more expensive. My wife didn’t care if I got a new machine and she got my 2017 machine or if we got her a new machine. I asked a few friends what they would do and the answers ranged from don’t buy an M1 machine now because it is a first generation to loving his M1 MacBook Air. I had shied away from the MacBook Air for me in the past because they had been underpowered and I thought the screens were too small. These days I use an 11" iPad Pro often and don’t use my laptop all that often without it being connected to an external display, so I would be OK with the 13" display and the differences between the Air and the 13" MacBook Pro were relatively minor that I’d save a few dollars by going with the Air.

I decided to get a new M1 based MacBook Air and my wife would get the 2017 machine. While she didn’t care, I justified me getting the new machine thinking that if there were any problems with the M1, it would be better that I had them than she did as the computer is just a tool for her and she doesn’t like futzing with technology.

The machine I picked up was a 16 GB/1TB/8 GPU M1 MacBook Air. Of course I bought AppleCare+ with it as I now buy AppleCare+ on just about every Apple product that is portable. This was the least I’ve spent on a laptop (in raw, non-adjusted dollars) in a long time; did I make the right decision? Would the machine be able to handle my daily work?

After setting up the machine, I worked on getting my projects to build. While they built fine for an iOS device, they wouldn’t build for the iOS simulator due to a different simulator architecture. Unfortunately there are a few 3rd party libraries I use that I don’t have source for and needed a workaround until the libraries are updated. I did a bunch of searching and found the answer:

EXCLUDED_ARCHS[sdk=iphonesimulator*] = arm64

That magic line in my project (as well as sub projects) got me going again. A full build of one project on the M1 machine was 42 seconds; on my 2017 machine it was 1 minute 24 seconds. Wow! That’s some pretty impressive performance.

The next part of getting setup was getting a Ruby on Rails project setup. Luckily Homebrew has many packages compiled for the M1, so I installed that, Ruby and some other pieces. Unfortunately it took me about a week to figure out that I had to change the version of a library to the latest as someone committed changes to build on the M1.

I took the machine on a trip last week and I absolutely love the size and weight! Even though it is a lot smaller than my 15" machine, the screen is easy to read. The keyboard is excellent and the machine performs well in everything I’ve thrown at it. While it only has 2 Thunderbolt/USB-C ports, that’s not a problem. I have 1 connected to a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt adapter for my Thunderbolt Display and the second is connected to a USB-C hub that has a few USB-A ports, SD Card reader and power delivery.

Up until yesterday I hadn’t restarted the machine since I got it, but have had 3 kernel panics since then which is concerning to me. I’m not sure if it is related to the external hard drive I connected to perform a backup or running Cura in Rosetta 2.

As long as the kernel panics stop and performance remains as good or better than my old machine, then I’ll be a happy camper and this will have been a good purchase. When Apple releases new machines with either the M1 or a newer processor, I think they’ll be a hit. However, I’m so taken with the size and weight of the MacBook Air, I might not want to move to a larger machine even if it has better performance.

Dreading the trip to the mall (it turned out fine)

One of the malls in San Diego is University Towne Center. It has always been my least favorite mall because the traffic around it is horrendous. I hadn’t been there in years even prior to the pandemic. A few years ago, I had read that the whole mall was under construction and they added a major parking garage (there was a small parking structure in addition to lots of surface parking before) which made me want to go there even less. In addition, they started charging for parking. Last week when I was looking to get a MacBook Air, I didn’t want to have it shipped as it would have arrived when we weren’t home and the other close Apple Store didn’t have it, so I decided to brave the mall and goto UTC. I read that the first two hours of parking were free, so that was good.

I drove to UTC using a sightly less traveled route and was kind of lost as I approached it as there is still a lot of construction for the trolley extension. Traffic was light (it was a weekday around lunchtime), so it wasn’t bad getting there. I turned into the parking garage and was overwhelmed at its size; the entrance was very wide open and spanned two stories. I got my ticket and followed some signs to Nordstrom since I really had no idea where the Apple Store was located. As I proceeded, I saw signs that indicated how many empty spaces down each section. In the past I’ve thought that they were kind of made up. Once I started going down an aisle, I realized that the numbers were completely accurate; overhead down the center of each aisle was a small sign that had a red or green indicator on each side showing me which spot was occupied. This made finding a space super easy. I parked, recorded the section I was in on my ticket as I had no idea where I was going, followed the painted walkways to the stores, and then went up 2 flights of stairs.

The digital map said to use at your own discretion, so I pulled out my phone and looked for the Apple Store. I had managed to park relatively close, so it was a short walk. I stood in line outside for less than a minute, showed my barcode, had my temperature checked (yeah, I know this is a waste) and then was told to wait on one of the black dots near the window inside the store. Someone brought out my computer, checked my ID and I was on my way.

Getting back to my car was easy and exiting the garage was another painless activity. When I got to the gate to leave, I tried to stuff the ticket in the machine, but it wouldn’t go and the gate opened. I think it read the barcode and opened without me having to put it in. This particular exit was on a street that had less traffic, so I was on my way. I think my total time from leaving my house to returning was less than hour with about 25 minutes of that being driving time.

The experience was so pleasant, I might consider going back to the mall in the future!

Another stab at fixing the Vizio SB36512-F6 Soundbar

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about fixing the SB36512-F6 soundbar as sometimes we just couldn’t hear anything from it. My "fix" seemed to work for awhile, but over the last few months, the problems have been worse. We would start a show using Channels or Netflix (primarily) and got no sound. Lately the volume buttons wouldn’t work (through HDMI-CEC) which is also frustrating. Through a combination of powering down the TV, changing the input on the soundbar, and powering off the outlet for the devices, we were able to get sound again.

I’ve been so frustrated with this that I’ve been on the verge of purchasing another soundbar, but waiting for a Costco sale so that I can take advantage of their return policy when it performs poorly. Today I decided to do another web search to see if others encountered the same problem. Unfortunately my original post was one of the hits! On the positive side, other posts indicated that Dolby Atmos was pretty poor on these types of soundbars which gave me an idea.

In order to get Dolby Atmos on the soundbar, I plugged the Apple TV into the soundbar’s HDMI port and then the TV into the soundbar’s HDMI ARC port. If I was willing to forego Atmos, I had more options for connecting the soundbar. Since I like HDMI-CEC for controlling all my devices, I decided to plug the Apple TV directly into my TV and then plugged the soundbar into the TV using HDMI-ARC.

Initial tests show that the setup works as expected with HDMI-CEC working for controlling volume and the power to the devices (I use power loosely as the devices are always in some type of standby mode). Will this fix my problems? I sure hope so or it is back to the drawing board on how to deal with this frustration.

It still baffles me that getting devices that adhere to standards working together is such a crapshoot. I have no idea how the average person gets any type of technology or electronic device to work.

Apple Watch 6 – My Take

When the first Apple Watch came out, I was immediately hooked. I wrote that it did everything I needed it to do. The next few generations of watches didn’t add a huge amount of value to me, so I skipped them. When the Apple Watch 4 came out, I decided to upgrade because it was waterproof, was significantly faster and could run the latest watchOS. I skipped the following year even though the always on display looked like a great feature.

This year with the pandemic, I was unable to goto the pool (last year I swam a lot and used my watch all the time being thankful it was waterproof) so I went back to running. When I run, I take my iPhone and put it in an armband carrier. This has worked well for years, but really started getting on me as I was running on an almost daily basis. When the Apple Watch 6 came out, I was torn. I didn’t need a new watch, but the blood oxygen sensor was interesting, the always on display was something that I didn’t know I really wanted (I’ve been shaking my arm for the last 5 years to get the screen to light up!) and the faster processor would make the watch more usable.

After looking at my usage pattern and selling a bunch of old stuff on eBay to cover the cost, I decided to get the GPS+Cellular version of the Apple Watch 6. Yes, I was going to have to pay an additional $10+fees per month for it, but I’d be freed a little bit from my phone tether.

I can’t say enough good things about this watch; the always on display is absolutely amazing and I can stop shaking my wrist all the time! Running (and walking) without carrying my phone is very pleasant allowing me to still be connected if need be, but not having a phone in my pocket (walks) or attached to my arm (runs). Apple is making huge strides with the processing speed of these watches with each generation. This watch is instantly responsive and Siri on it works very well.

With watchOS 7 comes sleep tracking and I’ve been wearing my watch almost 24/7 because of it. While I didn’t know exactly what my sleep pattern was, I could kind of tell when I didn’t sleep well. My watch now tells me (for the most part) if I had trouble sleeping. This, of course, isn’t exact as it is based on arm movement, but it is much better than not knowing.

Wearing my watch 24/7 causes an interesting problem with battery life. The cellular connection on my watch drains the watch faster than without it, so on days that I run or walk, I have to be aware that I have to charge my watch. In order to make it through the day, I am typically charging my watch in the morning and depending on the day, in the late evening. Some people would say that this is inconvenient, but just dropping it on the charging stand isn’t a big deal.

If I’m as happy with my Apple Watch 6 as I was with my last 2 Apple Watches, it will be another good purchase.

Toyota RAV4 Prime – The vehicle I wanted 4 years ago

When I was shopping for a car over 4 years ago, I had a few requirements including CarPlay and being a plugin hybrid. The plugin hybrid would have been perfect for my needs, but had to have around 40-50 miles of electric range.

Unfortunately I was unable to get a plugin hybrid, but I wouldn’t budge on having CarPlay. At the time, I had a Toyota Highlander and would have jumped at another Toyota, but Toyota dragged their heals on putting CarPlay in their vehicles, so I settled on the Subaru Impreza and was reasonably happy with it. However, as time went on, there were a few things that started getting on my nerves about it. The first was that it was too low to the ground. This, of course, was entirely my fault for making the decision to get a sportier car. The second was some low speed shifting issues that the dealer said were normal, Third was the local dealer; one of the service people was rude and lied to me. There are limited choices for Subaru dealers in close proximity to where I live. The fourth and most annoying problem was the infotainment system and CarPlay. I found that CarPlay wouldn’t always start and required me to reboot the system. I wasn’t the only person that had problems with the system as Subaru settled a class action lawsuit for the issues with it; I walked away with $350 which seems pretty significant for an issue that didn’t physically affect me. On various forums, people have argued that the infotainment system problems aren’t a big deal and that people don’t buy cars just for the infotainment system. Well, I’m not most people! CarPlay and the infotainment system were probably the biggest reasons I went with a Subaru instead of another Toyota.

In August, I wrote about looking for a new car. As much as I wanted to keep my Subaru for as long as I kept my Highlander (14 years), the annoyances I listed above especially the infotainment system, pushed me to long for a new car. My driving habits back when I was looking for the Impreza were pretty similar to before the pandemic whereby a plugin hybrid with 40-50 mile range would be ideal for me. I wouldn’t have range anxiety and could go on longer trips without having to plan charging stops. The RAV4 Prime fit the bill and I searched and searched for months to get one at a reasonable price. Most dealers wanted significantly above MSRP and those that didn’t had no idea when they would be getting what I wanted. However, I didn’t let that deter me.

On Black Friday, I got an alert from that I had setup and quickly sent an email to the dealer that was 90 miles away. Based on my communications with other dealers, I wasn’t holding my breath, but when I flat out refused his first price, he came down to a reasonable number. I made all the arrangements, packed the family in the car and made the drive up to the dealer. As one last middle finger to me, when I started the Impreza I could not get any volume out of the infotainment system. Luckily my wife was able to futz with it and get sound out of it again!

I’ve now had the vehicle for 5 weeks and driven it in a mix of electric and hybrid modes and like most new car owners, I’m generally pleased with it. Driving electric is amazing as it is quiet and the acceleration is unbelievable, so much so that the Toyota app has told me that I have aggressive acceleration as I’m not even aware that I’m pressing the pedal that hard!

Four years ago, I wanted a compact SUV (similar to my Highlander), plugin hybrid, and CarPlay. I finally have all that in my RAV4 Prime; I would not have thought twice about buying this vehicle if it was out back then.

Time, of course, will tell if I made the right decision and if there are any major problems with it.

Two Years of Daily Meditation

For the last 2 years, I’ve made an effort to spend about 10 minutes a day meditating. I’ve been using the Calm app listening and following the "daily calm". I tried other meditation apps, but have settled on Calm because I usually get a new guided meditation every day (there have been a number of repeats over the course of 2 years). Repetition in other apps was boring and made it very hard to keep meditating every day.

While 10 minutes a day is not a lot for those that have done meditation for a long time, it is a good start for me and I’ve managed to take the few minutes a day out of my schedule to just sit. As someone that finds it hard to sit still and do nothing, I consider this a huge accomplishment.

My day is not complete without my daily Calm and I hope that doing this is starting to change me for the better. Is it working? Sometimes.

Think Globally, Act Locally

Think Globally, Act Locally

More than 30 years ago, I took a tour of the Boston Globe as part of my high school graphic arts class. During the tour, they showed us the printing presses that were idle and hadn’t been cleaned yet after the prior night’s run. I asked what happened to all the paper still in the presses. I was told that they just threw away all the paper. Looking back on this answer, I believe it may have been incorrect, but it started me thinking about how much we waste (paper in particular). I decided to start a paper recycling program as my Eagle Scout project at my high school as a way to help reduce waste.

I became very involved in recycling efforts and joined my town’s recycling committee. My interest in recycling was probably the start of me thinking about the slogan "think globally, act locally". This slogan, of course, wasn’t new at the time, but was very on point as my recycling program wasn’t going to change the world, but it was a small part that I could to do help and if there were other like minded people, we collectively could do great things.

Recycling of paper products is now common place and people don’t think about it much. While I definitely didn’t make this happen globally, I’d like to think that I helped educate thousands of people through my efforts.

In my adult life, I’ve tried to keep following the act locally mantra by volunteering and by donating money. I know I’m not going to change the lives of millions of people and my name probably won’t be known by many people, but that doesn’t matter as long as I can make an impact on a few.

Now more than ever, I think the "think globally, act locally" slogan is important. While we as individuals can’t make COVID-19 go away, small acts such as wearing masks, staying home, and physically distancing can make a huge difference if we all followed the guidelines. When safe vaccines become available, getting one is another way to make a difference. It isn’t necessarily about protecting you from COVID-19, but also about protecting others. There are certain people that can’t get vaccines and we, as a society, need to do our best to protect them.

Some of the guidelines that we’re being asked to follow may be inconvenient, but we’re all in this together. I don’t think there are any excuses to not following the guidelines; some people are selfish and believe it is all about them and other people are not science literate to understand why we have been asked to do certain things. I am fortunate that I can financially ride this out; if everyone had followed the guidelines 6-9 months ago, we may not be where we are today with the increasing numbers and with so many people hit financially.

I urge people to do their part now and when we get through this pandemic about acting locally so that we can all help make the world a better place.

A look at UL/ETL Certification and Home Automation

Ever since I can remember, my dad has told me that any piece of electrical equipment that has a cord or is hardwired should be Underwriters Laboratories listed. UL listing means that a sample of the product has undergone testing and meets certain criteria for the type of device it is. Does this mean that items that lack the UL listing aren’t safe? No, it could just mean that the company didn’t spend the money to get the product tested.

Most things you buy with a cord are UL listed, so it really isn’t a concern. However, with more and more products coming direct from overseas and being developed faster and cheaper, it is becoming more common to see mass market products lacking UL listing.

Taking a slight detour here, UL has been the predominant testing lab/certification and the one that most people recognize. However, recently more products bear the ETL mark. Edison Testing Laboratory was started by none other than Thomas Edison and performs similar functions to UL. I’ve done a bit of research and the only real difference is which service a company choses to use. ETL tests to the same standard as UL. I suspect there could be a cost or time to test difference between the two.

I’ve been very cautious about things I buy direct from overseas and even some things I buy here that aren’t from mainstream manufacturers. While a UL or ETL mark doesn’t guarantee that something is going to be safe, it gives me some reassurance that an independent lab has looked at the product.

When I went to purchase a 3D printer, the Creality Ender 3 Pro was advertised as having a UL listed power supply (older ones didn’t). This got me curious about what that meant. Components of products can be UL listed without the entire product being listed; for whatever reason the whole device didn’t go through certification. These components bear a different mark called a "listed component".

So while the power supply on the printer is UL listed, the printer itself is not. I’m not overly concerned about this as the power supply is the piece that connects to 120 V and outputs low voltage. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the printer couldn’t catch fire (I’ve seen reports of this).

For my son’s Eagle Scout project, he’s building something (I’ll post about it when it is complete) that plugs into the wall and is controlled by a low voltage circuit. We found an example of what he wants to do on GitHub where the author posted a list of components. One of the components is a solid state relay that takes line voltage (120V) on one side and is controlled by low voltage on the other. While relays are quite common, mixing low and line voltage can be dangerous. According to the National Electric Code any time low voltage and line voltage are placed in the same electrical box, there must be a plastic separator between the two. When we remodeled our house, I had to find electrical boxes that had separators as I put low voltage audio controls in every room next to the bank of light switches.

Looking at this relay, I didn’t see a UL component mark on it and even if I did, I’d be concerned about putting it in a box that had line voltage and low voltage. So in my effort to help my son (adults can help on projects and he’s asked me to handle the electrical part and some of the electronics due to my knowledge of the field), I started researching parts that are UL or ETL certified so that we didn’t have to worry about mixing line voltage and low voltage. The pieces we’re looking at are widely used in IoT devices and consist of an outlet that can be controlled by a low voltage circuit.

I’ve looked and looked and have found some standalone outlets that are listed. I came across a blog post talking about the Sonoff smart plugs that are UL listed. Excellent, I may have found what I needed. I purchased 2 of the plugs and received them last week. They didn’t have an ETL logo on them, but did have a UL logo on them. Unfortunately looking up the product in the UL database didn’t come up with anything, but it did appear in the ETL database. When I asked Sonoff about this, they said that the S31 was ETL certified and not UL listed. That’s kind of odd and the discrepancy is enough for me to send them back. I did, however, find another outlet TGWF115PQM by Top Greener that is UL listed (and is in the UL database). In addition, this plug was easily flashed with the Tasmota firmware that works with Home Assistant and I believe it will work for my son’s project.

Many of the major brands of IoT devices, including the Belkin plugs don’t list UL or ETL certification on their web pages. If they are listed, I think that would be an important fact to mention on their site. If you browse Amazon for smart plugs, you’ll see some say CE or FCC certification; this is NOT the same as UL or ETL certification. Even if they say ETL or UL listed, I’d strongly encourage people to lookup the products and verify the certifications at UL or ETL.

If you’re in the market for IoT devices, look carefully at the certification on the devices and would not order anything direct from overseas that is line voltage (I ordered a small computer last year direct and the external power supply was not UL listed so I just swapped it with another one that I had just to be on the safe side).

Stay tuned for more on the project and the journey.