SkyBells for Africa: A One-year Review

You may have heard that Amazon announced the buy-out of the Ring doorbell business to include into their suit of smart home solutions. Knowing that not all of these connected home solutions work well in the bottom end of Africa (I'm talking about you Alexa) I thought I would offer a local view on my connected doorbell experience. 

 

Toto's beloved "Rain down in Africa" has cost me dearly over the years. By the vagaries of a Highveld lighting storm, I needed to replace a fried video doorbell about a year ago. At that stage, I  wasn't all too happy with the local range and quality of the regular store-bought versions; so I decided to take the risk of investing in a progressive, internet-based solution without really knowing whether it would work here in Africa. The best options available at the time were apparently the Ring 2 Doorbell and the SkyBell HD. Both of these were available from SmartHome Africa through www.Takalot.com. These devices connect wirelessly to an online service which pushes ring and motion detection notifications to your phone. You can see live feeds through the doorbell camera using your smart phone, and even chat with visitors at your door from wherever you are. I chose the Skybell as there was no requirement to subscribe to an annual service fee, such as with Ring, and the SkyBell device was a fraction cheaper too. Only the Ring doorbell could be battery operated, but I figured this was not a major drawback. Both the options were each about half the price of the pretty basic solution I was replacing,  so I felt that it would be a win all 'round.

 

When our SkyBell arrived there where quite a few setup and installation hoops that I had to jump through.

 

The first challenge was with the weird 16V AC standard power supply requirement. Apparently 16V AC doorbells are the norm elsewhere, while here in SA we more commonly use 3 V or 9 V DC powered units. It is possible to power the SkyBell with 12 V DC if you source and install an inline 10 Ohm 10 W resistor so that you don't fry the unit. My wife found a resistor at a local electronics store. Using the 16V AC setup, it is apparently simple to connect the bell to an indoor ringer, assuming this is also powered by 16V AC. I opted for the 12V DC setup but could never get it to ring to my existing mechanical or digital indoor bells. I even bought the relatively expensive digital doorbell adaptor accessory but could still not get that to work either. I haven't given up trying though. 

 

The second challenge I found was that I had to install the unit some distance away from the house, on a goose-neck pole, on the street side of our motor gate. The WiFi signal there was not up to the required 4 Mb/s so I had to trek back to the local computer supply shop to patch my net with another WiFi range extender. Power at this point was convenient as I could just tap 12V DC from my DC motor-gate battery.

 

Not being able to set up an indoor ringer, I had to dig up an old smartphone which I now keep charged in the kitchen as a dedicated notification device for staff, family and other visitors who are not registered users on our SkyBell account. Guest users recently be registered for house sitters or long stay in-laws. 

 

Day-to-day use of the system has been mixed. Latency is the biggest issue as the notifications are not nearly instantaneous. Typically notification delays on our main phones can range between 5 and 10 seconds - which is not too bad when considering that these notifications are presumably routed through distant US servers. Strangely, on the third device we registered this delay sometimes exceeds 5 minutes. By that time the visitor has either left, phoned our mobile phones or mashed the SkyBell button to death. Video connection to the SkyBell is also quite slow even on the lowest resolution setting. Often the opportunity to interact with visitors in this manner is lost by the time a connection is established.

 

I'm was also a bit concerned about how well the plastic moulding would hold up under the harsh African Sun as, in South Africa, we typically won't install these under the cover of our porches or apartment hallways. A South African SkyBell will have to fend for itself in the sun, wind and rain facing the street. I installed my unit in an open steel box and 3D printed a weather cowl to give it a bit more protection. You can download that model here. Alternatively, contact me if you want me make you one. The unit body seems to be holding up okay a year later although I imagine I can see it fading a bit.

I have also found that the motion detection was getting increasingly patchy and hardly worked, even on the highest sensitivity setting. Our SkyBell sees quite a lot of morning sunlight and the plastic detector lense was UV degraded to the point of being nearly opaque. The tiny PIR lens eventually cracked and fell apart and the motion detection oddly seems to be more functional now. I would strongly recommend installing the unit facing north or south with adequate solar shading so that it isn't exposed to the harsh South African sun.

 

In the time that we have had the unit I can only recall one time that the service was down. SkyBell have offered very impressive service up-times. 

 

Despite the slow connection when a visitor is at the gate (it is often quicker to walk to the gate than to communicate via Skybell) it has proven very useful to be able to spy on the goings-on on our driveway while at work.

 

I would definitely buy a SkyBell again if there is ever the need. They're considerably cheaper here than when I bought mine. I've even considered buying a second unit to serve as an IP security camera for other sections of our property as the installation and service is a simple DIY solution.

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