Making the Whole RV Connected. Apple-style!

There’s a whole world out there of home automation, and I want to bring it into the RV. Right now, this thing is antiquated. Its 30 years old and has very little technology in it aside from a couple of TVs, some computers, and a small, basic wifi network. So we need to advance that and bring it to the future. We need to make it all work together, all talk together, be seamless, reliable, and able to do all the things we want it to do. I’ll go through the list of conveniences we want, how to get them to work, how much it will cost, and what the work entails to make it all come together in a 30 year old RV.

Now, in a newer Tiffin, they have options for solar panel hookups, smart TVs, vehicle-wide stereo systems, satellite dishes, and all sorts of other neat technology. From reading forums and Facebook, I’ve found that most people who spend all that money on those new RVs really have no idea how any of it works or how to fix something when it stops working. Sometimes a piece of equipment breaks that they didn’t even know was in a closet in the back. Sometimes they flipped a switch that shut something off and they are clueless as to how to correct the mistake. But for Tiffany and I, we know what is in our RV and how it all works together, and more importantly, we know how to fix it and what do if something fails.

Now, we do not have this setup yet. Why? Because we can’t afford it at this time. So we’ll do it a little at a time, and eventually, we’ll have a fully automated smart RV where we can control everything with our voice, from playing music or a movie, to adjusting the temperature to seeing who is at the front door without looking through the window. Its a project, but we are going to start on it soon and build it up, little by little.

At this point, our RV ir pretty much in good condition. We had one engine issue with the transmission, but that is getting fixed. Next we’ll get an overhaul of the engine so that we can get hoses and spark plugs replaced, anything that might have deteriorated with age. Maybe it needs a new water pump or fuel pump or carburetor. Those are things we’ll have to do soon, just because this is obviously an old RV. But those are things we know we need to work on, and they are in the schedule. This post though, is beyond that. This is not about making sure the RV is functional. This is about making sure it is damn comfortable.

Lets start at the basics. We need internet access for everything to work together, to get updates, and to be able to watch TV. We have that covered with our AT&T Mobley and an unlimited plan. We bought a USB power adapter, so whenever we are on shore power, the Mobley connects to the nearest cell tower, and we have our own wifi network within the RV. The one major problem with the Mobley though, is that it only allows five devices to be connected to it at a time. That will not work.

Power demands: One USB.

To connect more devices to the Mobley, we need a wifi router than can do WISP. The one we have now, a GL.iNet GL-MT300N Mini Travel Router, works, but it only has two ethernet ports on it. It does allow some customization so it is nice in that regard, but I’d like something with a lot more ethernet ports on it, preferably Gigabit ethernet. However, we’ll stick with the gli.net router anyway, because it does exactly what it is supposed to, its small, reliable, and very cheap.

Power demands: One USB.

Beyond that, we need to add more ethernet ports, fast ones, and make a wifi network. In this instance, we are using the gli.net router only to grab the wifi network from the Mobley and send it through the ethernet port to another router. This means we will have three wifi networks in our RV (Mobley, gli.net, and main base station), so it may be a bit of overkill, but we like that. Since we are making this setup all about using Apple products together, we’ll get an Apple Airport Extreme router.

But there is one major problem with the Airport Extreme. It comes with a paltry three Gigabit ethernet ports. That simply will not work. We’d like at least 8, so we’ll have to go with something else, something smaller, cheaper, and not at all overkill. For that, we have the D-Link 8 Port Gigabit Switch. Its small, can be thrown in our media closet without problem, and has 8 ports so we should have plenty for all the devices we need to connect to it. That will also reduce our over abundance of wifi networks, so we are back to two. We will also need a small ethernet cable to attach the gli to the ethernet switch, but we can do that with a 3 foot cable.

Power demands: One AC.
Other: 3 foot ethernet cable.

That gives us a full network. The gli will connect to the Mobley and share its connection to the rest of the devices automatically. In the event that we don’t have AT&T coverage, we can use the gli to connect to the campground wifi if it is within range, and share that as well. Its not ideal, but it works. But what if we don’t have to do that and can rely on our own internet all the time? For that, we need a weBoost Drive 4G-X RV Cell Phone Signal Booster. The weBoost has an internal and external antenna and can increase the cell signal by up to 32x. I’ve seen good reviews of the product and definitely need to invest in one. We hadn’t had problems with AT&T coverage for the first few months of our travels, but where we are now in Kentucky, we get maybe one bar on AT&T. The weBoost should increase that to a useable speed so we can stay on our unlimited plan at the LTE speeds, instead of the reduced speed from tethering through our phones.

The weBoost requires running a cable outside the RV, so we’d have to drill a hole through the wall. Where the media closet is now, the awning is on the other side of, but there should be enough room to drill a hole above the awning and route the cable out there. The weBoost comes with a small hole cover as well, so we just run the cable through that, put some sealant around the hole and tighten down the cover. Its so small that I’m not worried about bugs or rodents, but we can put some sealant in the hole itself to make sure its completely sealed.

For the antenna, we have two options. The included antenna, or a bigger trucker antenna. Go big or go home, so we’ll get the weBoost 4G-OTR Cellular Antenna too. It comes with 14 feet of cable and is meant to be as far from the internal antenna as possible, so we’ll mount it on the driver’s side of the cab near the front. The cable will have to run over the top of the RV, but we’ll lock that down in place with some EternaBond. This stuff is simply the best for keeping things in place on top of an RV as well as sealing up any seams and keeping water out.

Inside the RV, the small internal antenna from the weBoost will be in the media cabinet with the Mobley right next to it, so we don’t need to worry about signal loss. The internal antenna is only good for a couple of feet, so we need the Mobley right next to it.

Power demands: One AC.

Okay, that solves the issue of internet access. With that little bit of technology, we have a fully functioning wifi and ethernet network that should work just about anywhere.

Now to the brains of the system. We need something small, but powerful and able to handle a high demand since there will be several systems connected to it. We could do it with a Mac mini, but the newer Apple Mac Pro, is so small, we might as well go big. The power may be overkill again, but we want something that will last a long time before needing to be replaced. This is an 8-core Xeon, so its got plenty of power, but it doesn’t have much RAM. That is easy enough to upgrade though, so we’ll boost it up to OWC 64.0GB. 64GB should easily accomplish anything we need to do with it. This is a system designed to last.

Power demands: One AC.
Other: 3 foot ethernet cable

The system only has a 256GB drive though, so while that’s enough for apps and running the system, its not enough for all of our media. For that reason, we need some external hard drives. Again, we want a lot of space for future needs, so we might as well go with the best we can get. Since the Mac Pro has six Thunderbolt 2 ports, we’ll go with Thunderbolt and leave the USB open for cameras and whatever else may be needed. So for hard drives, we get three G-Technology Thunderbolt External Hard Drive (10TB). One is for media, movies, music and such as well as ROMs for playing older video games. The second is for backup for Time Machine on our computers as well as a file server for transferring files between our computers and devices, and the third will be for the video feed from the various cameras set up around the RV for our YouTube channel.

Power demands: Three AC.

Then we have to get the media to the TVs. The new Apple TV includes support for 4K, so we might as well upgrade the TVs while we are at it to as high a resolution as we can get in the space we have. In the living room, we already have a 40 inch TV, and it fits the space well. The TV is about eight years old though and heavy, weighing in at over 60 pounds. New TVs are both lighter and more power efficient, so upgrading that one is a no brainer. For under $400, we can get a Samsung 40-Inch 4K Ultra HD Smart LED TV. It weighs an astonishing 19 pounds too, so that will help with keeping the RV weight down as well. Its also a smart TV, but if we are using an Apple TV, we don’t really need that. At this point in time though, its almost impossible to get a 4K TV that isn’t smart.

Power demands: One AC.

For the bedroom, we currently have a 19 inch TV mounted under the cabinets at the foot of our bed. 19 inches is a good size, but we could also go slightly larger without it seeming too big. The Samsung 23.6″ 720p Smart LED TV seems to be a good fit. Its impossible to get a 4K TV at this size, so 720p will have to do. Thats part of the penalty of dealing with small TVs though.

Power demands: One AC.

Then there are the two Apple TVs, one for each TV. However, since only one TV is 4K, we only need one of the newest model. Other than the 4K output, they are almost identical though. The Apple TVs will allow us a couple of options. First, we can stream all of movies and tv shows through the Apple TVs and watch anything we have stored on the hard drive connected to the Mac Pro. Second, the newer Apple TVs have apps, so we can purchase games and play them on the TV. I’ve never played anything on them though, but I assume they are in the vein of iPad games, not overly complex, but still decent and pretty cheap. Its not like we would be playing intensive games from a console like a PS4 or Xbox One on them, but its still something small and affordable for a past time. Third, we can share the screens from our Macbooks or iPhones on them, so if want to use a larger screen, its easy to share it have in 40 inches of 4K. I’m sure Tiffany will take advantage of playing Sims 4 on a 40 inch TV.

To connect the Apple TVs to the network. I’d prefer to use ethernet. That way we have less load on the gli wifi network, and the connection is faster over cable than over the air. There is one problem with this though, and that is the distance to the back Apple TV. The media cabinet is near the front of the RV, but on the passenger side. Fortunately, the back TV is also on the passenger side. We should be able to run an ethernet cable out the media cabinet, behind the shelf that is above the door, through the cabinet above the kitchen sink, behind the microwave, and then we have a problem. There is a fridge in the way, so we have to figure out to get behind the fridge, but if we can pulled forward a bit, there should be room behind it for a single cable. Next there is a closet, and then comes the electrical box. I have not opened the electrical box, but there should also be plenty of room in there to run one cable through and out. Then its into the clothes cabinet above the bed where we can connect it to the Apple TV. It should be simple, in theory, assuming we can get behind the fridge. That is really the only major obstacle, but I don’t think it will be impossible. Besides, we only have to do it once.

Power demands: Two AC.
Other: One 5 foot ethernet cable. one 25 foot ethernet cable.

One more thing. I like to play video games. I would love to be able to play Star Trek Online and Overwatch. There are some other games out there that I’d like to get into as well, but those two are the main ones I want to start playing. After comparing the current systems on the market, with the Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Nintendo Switch, I think I prefer the Xbox One, specifically the S. It is a smaller system than the original Xbox One, it has a built in power supply instead of an external brick, it supports 4K games and Blurays, and with the Xbox One X coming out in a few weeks, the S has gone down to about $200 for a used system. We can get that from Amazon for a decent price. It only has a 500GB hard drive though, but they are easy to upgrade and with a WD 4TB Black My Passport  Portable External Hard Drive and with that much space, it should be plenty for downloading games, installing them on the system, and anything I might purchase through Xbox Live.

Power demands: One AC.
Other: 3 foot ethernet cable.

So that does the media and entertainment part of this post. Now onto security and our YouTube channel. Ideally, I would like to have a few cameras on the inside of the RV to catch things that happen while we aren’t paying attention, as well as monitor the cats while we are away. Then I’d like a camera on the outside of the RV showing the side door, one on the dash facing forward, and a rearview camera for backing up and seeing if anyone is tailgating me. And have all this tie into the Mac Pro, so we can monitor it from our phones if we need to, or have it viewable on a small screen in the dash.

That, however, may prove to be difficult. Setting up a backup camera, having it connected to the Mac Pro and then out a small monitor in the dash might be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. Instead, we might just have to get a cheap, dedicated backup camera system that is designed for solely that purpose. Easy enough to do, and they only cost around $50. The camera is attached to the rear of the RV but I would have to figure out how to get the wiring to the front to connect to the monitor. Some are wireless, but I’d rather have one with a cable connection for security and less possibility of interference. We could run the cable on top of the RV, secure it with Eternabond, but at some point, we need to get it under the RV and up into the dash. I’m not sure the best path to take that through. Since we will at some point be replacing the valences over the windows with smaller curtains, we would open up some space on the walls. We could probably bring the cable forward to above the copilot’s seat, then bring it down through the ceiling and along the inside of the wall by the copilot’s chair, then forward along the floor and up into the dash. If the hole on top is sealed with Dicor and Eternabond, there shouldn’t be any worry of leaks.

Power demands: One DC direct connection.

For the security cameras, I think the best option out there is OpenEye. There is an app so that it connects to your iOS device so you can view the video feed from anywhere, and that app is free. However, there is the cost of purchasing their cameras to do it all with, but it is macOS-compatible. We can buy four cameras to install, with one on the dash facing forward, one over the door, one facing me while driving, and the last facing Tiffany. With the included software, the cameras will be recording any time there is motion, and with the 10TB drive already mentioned just for video, we can have that constantly storing and recording, and as long as we have power and wifi, we can access it from anywhere.

The only problem though, is where to buy OpenEye cameras. They seem to be well supported, but going through their website, I can’t figure out where to buy it from. I finally filled out a form to get information about resellers, so hopefully they get back to me with some information. The cameras do not appear to require a separate power source though and only use 5 Watts of power, so four of them should be able to be accommodated. I can find the cameras on eBay, so maybe that is the route I’ll have to take.

That solves the security problem, next we go to the last part: Home Automation.

Apple has developed the HomeKit framework for connecting devices and making a smart home. We’ll be using that to make our RV modern and tech’d out. A little information about the electrical system in our RV is in order though.

First, all of the lights are DC powered. When plugged into shore power, the converter changes the AC power coming in from outside into DC to charge the batteries. The lights then get their electricity from the batteries. Sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. In a normal stick and brick house, the lights are all powered by AC, as is pretty much everything else in the house. In an RV, as much as possible is designed to run on DC power and off the batteries since very few RVs are connected to shore power all the time.

The lights all have a small switch on the light itself to turn it on and off. In the case of the light on the outside door and the light above the door, there is also a switch next to the steps, inside the RV.

Other devices in the RV that run on DC include the furnace, water pump, and refrigerator. The fridge can also run on propane or DC power, as needed. The water pump barely uses any power, it only runs when it needs to. The fridge we mostly run on propane when we are not connected to shore power. It does use a little DC power then as well, mostly for the control board and to light the propane. We have yet to run the furnace on DC power, but I’ve been told that RV furnaces suck power out of batteries like theres no tomorrow.

How does this affect what we are doing here? Well, we need to make sure the smart devices we add can run on DC power and still do their functions. That could be a problem. We could get a six pack of Koogeek Smart WiFi Light Switch for Apple HomeKit. But we cannot simply remove the light switches and put these in. Instead, we would have to go inside the cabinet, find the wiring, and install a switch in between the light and the power source. In theory, it should work. In practice, I really don’t know.

And crap. After looking into it, the light switches require an AC power source, one that we don’t have. The lights and wiring are all built for DC power, so we may be screwed in this instance. If we are going to be on shore power almost all the time, this isn’t really an issue, but if we are on DC power, we can’t use the smart home features of our RV. We have plans to be members at a campground network so we will be on shore power all the time except driving between parks, so maybe that’s not as bad as it seems. There is a lot of work and planning involved though. I’m not sure I can do all the work myself either, as I am no electrician. There is a chance though that we could upgrade the electric panel in the back and run wiring for AC power throughout the RV. We wouldn’t have 100% control of the lights in the RV, but if we added a couple of lights in key areas, we could at least control those lights. In essence, we’d have two networks of lights, one for when not on shore power, one for while on shore power. Is the extra hassle worth it? I’m not sure, depends on how convenient we want things. It would be nice to be able to control the lighting, color, and brightness from our phones, but its really not needed. For now, the lights will have to wait until we can figure out how difficult and expensive it would be to add AC light fixtures in the RV.

Power demands: Unknown.

The other smart feature we’d like is the ability to control the temperature with both the heat and air conditioning. The thermostats appear to be standard thermostats just like in a house, so they should be able to be replaced easily. There’s also a carbon monoxide and smoke detector that works with HomeKit, so we should get one of those as well. For the smoke detector, there is the Nest Protect Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Alarm, Battery (2nd gen) that runs on batteries, so we don’t need to worry about running AC power to it. Just put in batteries, connect it to the network, and we’ll get alerts on our phones if anything is wrong. For temperature control, we can also go with Nest and get the Nest Learning Thermostat. The only major problem with the Nest thermostat is that requires AC power, but not very much. It also has batteries, so it can run without shore power connected, at least for ten hours or so. If we put it in the front of the RV where on thermostat already is, there is also an AC power line near it, so it should be easy to tap into that wiring and power the thermostat.

Power demands: One AC.

And onto the final item: Controlling it all.

This is where the HomePod comes into play. Its a speaker, so we can play music through it, but it also has Siri and talks to all the devices with HomeKit on the network. With the HomePod placed centrally in the RV, we can use it to play music from the Mac Pro, we can call to it to change the temperature, or we can just ask it what time it is. I have yet to play with a HomePod though, so I’m sure its capable of much more than I know.

Power demands: One AC.

A few other minor details to add. With the Mac Pro connected to the 4K TV in the living room, we can also install an emulator and play older console games on the large TV. Its difficult, but not impossible, to get a Xbox One controller to work with a Mac. I tried setting one up to use it to control macOS, and that proved problematic. There are apps that can make it work like a mouse, but they are buggy and have problems making them 100% reliable. We can use them in games though, so with emulators like Dolphin, we can play even GameCube and Wii games on the Mac Pro. It has more than enough power to emulate the GameCube hardware too, so it should run flawlessly.

We also need to set up iTunes with Home Sharing on it so we can view movies from the Mac Pro on the Apple TVs, but that is easy to do and works immediately. If we set up file sharing on the Mac Pro, then we can access the media hard drive from our Macbooks and put the new media in a dedicated folder for iTunes. We will still probably have to go on the Mac Pro and add those files to the library, but if its connected to the 4K TV, all we would need is a bluetooth keyboard with a trackpad to do a simple Add to Library command and its done. I assume with the power the Mac Pro has, this would be pretty quick. And with the Apple TVs and Mac Pro connected to each other over ethernet, there should be no lag when watching a movie on either TV.

And that folks, is that. I have no idea how much this would cost, but it would only take a day or two to set up once you have all the equipment. The hardest part, like I already said, is running the cable, especially behind the fridge. Other than that, everything should be pretty simple and only take a few minutes. You’ll need to drill a hole through the wall for the weBoost external antenna, but pretty much everything else is wireless.

If anyone wants to set me up with this equipment, contact me. I’m sure someone out there has lots of money and no need for it and wouldn’t mind giving it to us for this purpose!

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