Smart Home on Wheels: adding technology to aging motorhomes

Here at Bubba On The Road, we love gadgets. We love technology, we love having the internet always accessible. We are approaching 40, so both of us grew up in a time when computers were just starting to become used in homes, video game consoles were 8-bit, and the internet at home was unheard of. As we grew up and started our lives as adults, technology was exploding. While many of the younger generation now have always had easily reachable internet access, we did not. It was not something that was always there. We lived through the time of Dial Up and AOL free trial version disks. For that reason, we do not take these things for granted, and that, I feel, is a boon.

We now live in a 1988 Tiffin Allegro. Its 33 feet long, with no slide outs, one bathroom, no oven, and limited conveniences. But its our home and we want to make it as comfortable as possible. With the advent of smart home technology, we want to bring that simplicity and convenience on the road with us. We want to create a Smart Home on Wheels and show you, our readers, how to do the same in your RV.

We have our feelers out, looking for new technology that may be currently used in a traditional home with always-on high speed internet and figuring out how to bring it into a moveable home. This project, and this blog series, will be extensive. We are looking at everything we can add to the RV to make it more technologically advanced and bring it well into the 21st Century. For the most part, it is mechanically sound and needs few upgrades or repairs. It is also built like a tank as most models were in the 80s. We have an aluminum roof and walls, solid construction, and a stable foundation to build upon. But inside, it is dated and old. It needs work to make it more our home instead of just the thing we sleep in and takes us places.

Right now, we have a simple network. I’ve detailed before about our internet setup, but basically, we have an AT&T Mobley connected to a wifi router and all devices connected to that router. We aren’t done yet though, and that setup has its issues. Where we are now, we get almost no AT&T signal, even though their coverage map says we should get full LTE. So instead, the router is connected to one of our iPhones and then broadcasts that connection to everything else can use it. But we have T-Mobile phones, and T-Mobile slows down tethering a lot. So in a nutshell, where we are now is horrible for internet access, but it still works, albeit slowly.

We are currently on our way from Wisconsin to Florida. When we get to Florida, we will be doing a total overhaul of the electrical and networking systems. We will be adding more power outlets, possible adding some more breakers and heavier wiring, and running as much ethernet cable through the RV as we can. Wifi is great most of the time, but sometimes, a hard wired connection will be better if the device connected to it never moves.

When we get to Florida, we’ll be adding a couple Apple TVs and replacing the ten year old Sony TV in the living room with a smaller and lighter TV. We will have a network switch by then, and that will be in the media cabinet above the TV in the living room. Ethernet cable will be run to both of the Apple TVs to eliminate the need for them to use Wifi. That’s two devices connected to an 8-port switch. In the living room, the Raspberry Pi with RetroPie will also be hard wired and connected to that TV so we can play older video games on a large screen TV. We don’t have a newer generation console at this time, but when we get one, that will be added in the living room as well, most likely with a ethernet connection.

At this time, we use Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Pandora, and Plex Media Server for our entertainment needs. We will be adding a more powerful media center computer, hopefully a Mac mini, and using iTunes to connect everything instead of Plex. If we can connect everything with Apple products, the built in connectivity would be fantastic. Even without a Mac mini and macOS, we can still use a Windows PC running iTunes and that should still work fine. We have an external hard drive with all our media on it, so we don’t need anything with a large internal hard drive, but a lot of RAM and a decent CPU would be ideal. It doesn’t even need a good video card since everything will be watched through external devices.

We will also be looking at improving the sound output in the RV. Currently, we have several very old, very small speakers, all attached to the old AM/FM/Cassette radio in the dash. A few months ago, I bought a Kenwood car stereo with Bluetooth, but I have not installed it yet. I need to run a power line from the back breaker box to power it from the house batteries or shore power, as the current setup runs off the engine battery. That battery needs to be conserved so we can actually drive places, and its disconnected when we are stationary for long periods of time, which means the radio does not work. I’ve looked at various other speaker options, from the simple act of adding traditional car speakers into the walls, to adding something like a Sonos speaker connected to the TV and even smart speaker options like Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Home, and Apple’s HomePod. While any one of them would work and control the smart house setup, I’m not sue which one we will go with at this point.

With those few devices, we have a smart home, though in its simplest form. We have a media hub that we can watch movies or listen to music throughout the RV, and we have a smart speaker that we can ask questions or give commands. But what does it command?

That’s where a few other devices come in. First, there is a smart home thermostat. It would be nice to control our RV temperature remotely, but I don’t think it would work well for us. We have a propane furnace, but it guzzles propane and we are currently empty, so we don’t us it at all. Instead we use an electric infrared heater that has its own built in thermostat. It has been cold here most nights for the past few weeks, so we’ve been running it almost constantly. For air conditioning, we are looking at a device that works the same way, but cools instead of heats. The specific one I want is a smart device though, so when we are in warmer climates, we should be able to lower the temperature in the RV with our phones.

Then there are lights. Most smart lights plug into a traditional 120volt lightbulb socket. We have none of those in our RV, as all the lights are powered with DC electricity from the batteries. If I can find something that runs on DC and controls power flow through wifi, I’ll add that in between the power source and the lights so we can turn them on or off from our phones. I’m not sure that even exists though, so I’m still looking.

Eventually, I’d even like to add an electronic doorbell so we can see who is outside from our phones. Those require standard doorbell wiring though, which obviously an RV does not have. It should be a simple AC or maybe DC power cord though, but I’ll have to research that more.

Now, all of this is well and good if we have AC power. If someone wanted to make our whole system useless, all they would have to do is flip the breaker switch outside at the power pole and we’d have almost nothing. Some of our devices have batteries, like laptops and phones, but most of them require AC power. For that reason, we need to boost our electrical system and add bigger batteries, a decent inverter, and solar power for backup.

Lithium batteries, specifically LiFePO4 batteries, are long lasting, light, and reliable. But they are expensive. At some point we’ll have to invest in a few though, as right now we have one lowly Walmart battery for when we are not plugged in. We would have to run the generator for a couple of hours every day just to keep our laptops and phones charged, and can’t use much of anything else. If we had to run the heat, we’d have to run the generator constantly as the heater is AC powered.

So we add more batteries, probably six of them, and find somewhere to hide them. Then to run power from them to all our devices, we’d have to get an inverter to change the DC battery power into AC power for our electronics. Inverters aren’t terribly expensive, but up to this point we haven’t needed one one quite yet. We will soon though.

To charge this all, we need solar power as a backup for when we have no shore power or are boondocking in the middle of nowhere. Solar isn’t very expensive either, its more labor intensive to get the somewhat heavy panels up to the roof, running cable, installing a charge controller, connecting to the batteries, connecting those to the inverter, and then plugging it all into our current electrical system. Not very complicated, right?

And that, dear readers, is the outline. As devices and supplies come in, we’ll be installing them, setting them up, reviewing them, and writing posts here about how it all works together.

If you have any suggestions for other devices we can test out or add to our system, please comment below. Suggestions and comments are always welcome, and we’ll take the work of installing and testing on ourselves and let you know how it worked out to make our smart home on wheels.

Smart Home on Wheels

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