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My friend’s cottage near Dorset, Ont., is technically in cell range. But to make a call, they have to walk a few hundred metres to the top of a small hill, stand on one leg, and wear a metallic hat. Okay, the last two parts aren’t true, but a real estate lawyer making multi-million dollar deals with squirrels and chickadees listening in is a funny enough visual.
That he goes to such lengths says a lot about our dependance on connectivity at the cottage. And it’s not just work. It’s also how we listen to music, share photos, cook, and entertain. It keeps our cottage safe, secure, and running efficiently.
These days, more connected devices enable us to have lights, window shades, and thermostats, and smoke, leak, and heat sensors, all controlled from an app. And better cell and satellite coverage allow more people to work from anywhere, including the dock.
But cottagers should still manage their expectations. Trees and other obstructions can hamper satellite service. Cell towers can only handle so much traffic. And too many wireless devices on one system can slow down even the most robust networks.
Plus, with technology, the line between helpful and headache is often thin. That’s why I asked experts in rural connectivity, audio, and entertainment, as well as savvy cottagers, to help cultivate the following 14 products. This new technology will make entertaining, living, and working at the cottage more fun, safer, and easier—no metallic hat required.
Products for entertaining
Technology is increasingly integrating into how we enjoy the cottage.
Take bird watching, for example. When a bird lands on the Birdbuddy feeder, a high-resolution camera mounted on the front sends a notification to your phone that something has arrived, snaps the bird’s picture, and uses artificial intelligence to identify its image and song. The companion app includes information on hundreds of bird species and adds the sighting to your collection. Without onboard storage, it requires a Wi-Fi signal, but since it’s made from recycled plastic, the feeder is durable and has optional accessories, including a solar panel that can charge the feeder.
Unistellar eQuinox 2
When the stars come out, the Unistellar eQuinox takes all the fiddling and expertise out of observing the sky. Yes, it’s almost as much as hiring your own observatory, but the eQuinox is smarter than most astronomers and easier to use than other telescopes. Onboard is a computer that pairs with an app to automatically focus the telescope on a requested constellation. Proprietary technology enhances the image to filter out ambient light and pollution, displaying more colourful and detailed observations. On the app, you can zoom in and out and share the image, including with NASA to support scientific research.
For those that take cooking as seriously as the search for inhabitable planets, a wireless meat thermometer is a must-have. The Meater Plus is one of the only truly wireless designs, with just a connected probe and an app. On other devices, the probes are still wired. Two sensors on the probe relay internal and external temperatures to the app, from up to 50 metres away. An algorithm and cooking presets predict cook time and show progress in the app, which also sends alerts to your phone. You might never overcook a steak again.
From the barbecue pit to watching birds through the window, theme music will make your cottage experience even better. You could wire your place with a fancy sound system, or you could buy a simple and rugged Bluetooth speaker. To make sure it can keep up with your day-long demands, the EcoXGear SolJam has a 12-hour battery life and a built-in solar panel that trickle charges (translation: it slowly charges the battery at the same rate it is using the charge) whenever the sun is shining. It powers two 10-watt speakers that blast loud and rich sound, and the Bluetooth connection works up to 100 metres away. The unit is waterproof and cottage tough. It will keep playing even if it’s dropped, tossed in the sand, or splashed.
Products for living
In the past, it could be days or even weeks before you discovered a disaster such as a leaking pipe or a burst hot water heater.
Water shut-off unit
Bulldog-JW Starter Kit
Now, floods are preventable with sensors and remote water shut-off units like the EcoNet Controls Bulldog-JW Starter Kit. Place the three sensors in flood-susceptible locations, and attach the battery-powered Bulldog mechanism to the valve that controls the water flow into the cottage. When the sensors detect moisture, they signal the Bulldog to close the water valve, cutting off the flow and preventing more damage. It works without a cell signal or Wi-Fi, but if the unit is online and linked to the app or smarthome device, it can send an alert to your phone.
August Smart Lock
Instead of hiding a key, the August Smart Lock turns any smartphone or an Apple Watch into one, making it easier to let renters, guests, workers, and neighbours into the cottage when you’re in the city. You can provide a “key” to anyone with the app. Basic models run on Bluetooth—but you’ll need a Wi-Fi-enabled model to use the lock remotely. From the app, you can control how long each key has access and check the status of your door. It’ll keep track of all traffic, so you know when Uncle Tim dropped in mid-week to “borrow” some wine.
Vosker V300 security camera
The Canadian-made Vosker V300 security camera lets you see what’s going on at the cottage, even when you’re not there. With just a cell signal, the remote security camera detects movement (from up to 30 metres away), sends an alert via text to an app, and then displays live HD video and audio. Powered by a lithium battery and a supplementary solar charger, it stores all its footage on an SD card and it even works in the dark. Although live view requires a data plan, there are cheaper options that only capture stills. But for the convenience of real-time viewing—say, to check the snow cover on the driveway—it’s nice to have and may win you a deduction on your insurance premium.
Google Nest Learning Thermostat
Another nice-to-have is a way of arriving at a toasty warm cottage that reduces your heating bills. That’s the promise of smart thermostats, including the Google Nest Learning Thermostat, that allow you to manage heating and cooling from your phone. (You can still adjust the temperature old school on the touch screen interface.) Nest also pairs with voice-activated smart devices, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home. That means you can turn it up from anywhere, including before you arrive. Over time, the Nest learns your heating and cooling habits and provides suggestions to help save an average of 10-12 per cent on your heating bills and 15 per cent on your cooling bills per year.
Samsung Family Hub refrigerator
Cutting waste and cost is also a strong argument for one of Samsung’s Family Hub refrigerators. A Wi-Fi-enabled camera in the fridge broadcasts the live contents to a screen on the door and to an app. Gone is the need to open the fridge to see what’s inside—you waste electricity (and money) every time you do. You can buy and waste less, which is key with the cost of food these days, and bonus—you won’t end up with four bottles of ketchup at the end of the summer.
Smart device system
Control4 Smart Home OS 3
Operating these disparate smart devices means using all of their individual apps, which can feel, well, dumb. The Control4 Smart Home OS 3 is one of the better systems that controls them all from one app. Like many of these systems, the Control4 requires a professional install, but that also means the installer can fix future issues remotely.
Products for working
With internet calling options and unlimited data plans, it doesn’t really matter whether you have cell or Wi-Fi at the cottage, as long as one of them is reliable.
A cell booster is the simplest way to improve a spotty connection to Zoom-able strength. With a device like the SureCall Fusion4Home, a roof antenna connects to a station indoors and together they boost the signal by about two bars over an area up to 4,000 sq. ft. The booster works with phones, tablets, and hot spots for voice, text, and data, and multiple devices can use it at the same time. It runs on AC power but is compatible with off-grid, 12-volt power sources too.
Starlink satellite constellation
Where a wired internet connection isn’t an option, satellite is the next best thing. The arrival of Starlink’s satellite constellation in southern Canada has increased availability (expanding to more cottage-country areas this year), affordability, and speed ($759 hardware, plus $140 per month). It uses thousands of satellites that orbit closer to earth than other services, which reduces the latency—the time it takes for a “packet” of information to go from earth to satellite and back—increasing speed by up to 500 per cent. That’s fast enough for streaming and gaming. This kind of setup may not work on properties with heavy tree cover or steep hillsides, since the satellite needs a clear line to the sky. Where it does work, however, it’s reliable, and you’ll get fast internet for little more than hardwired service.
mesh wi-fi system
Amazon Eero Pro 6E mesh Wi-Fi system
Any Wi-Fi network can still have dead zones. The best way to extend wireless internet range is an additional hardwired router point. The second best option is a mesh system. It’s a collection of devices that hand off the connection from the router to small, independent stations throughout your cottage. Mesh systems are easier to use and more powerful than Wi-Fi boosters. The Amazon Eero Pro 6E is one of the easiest mesh systems to set up and operate, and the 6E has a triple antenna, meaning it can talk to multiple devices and the router at the same time.
BioLite BaseCharge 600
None of these products do you any good if the power goes out. That’s where the BioLite BaseCharge 600 steps up. The 622 watt-hour, lithium battery bank has two outlets for electronics and appliances; multiple USB-A and C ports; a wireless charging pad for phones, and an input for recharging the battery bank with a solar panel. A digital dashboard displays performance and battery life. It’s enough to keep any cottage office functioning for days. Because the only thing worse than having to walk to find service is a dead battery because the power is out.
How to keep everyone online and your connection freeze-free
Cell, satellite, and fibre optic coverage may be nearly ubiquitous these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s always enough, says Mark Elliot, the owner of Cottage Country Audio Video in Muskoka, Ont. The minimum download speed for streaming video is one megabyte per second (MBps) and at least three MBps for high-definition video. Accommodating a host of connected devices requires far more: 20 MBps download and five to 10 MBps upload speed, Elliot says.
With more people coming online in recent years, speeds in cottage country have not kept up with the promised rates. Elliot suggests testing speeds on-site, either by hiring a pro or with apps such as speedtest.net. “The more people on a system, the slower the internet gets for everyone,” Elliot says. “The providers are adding more capacity, but it’s a process.”
The same limits apply to a personal Wi-Fi system—you can’t necessarily stream 4K content and have everyone on their iPad at the same time. Your service provider may not be able to deliver fast enough upload and download speeds to a rural property to meet your demands.
Your best bet is to hardwire as many devices as possible and lower quality settings on all wireless devices to reduce demand, particularly anything video- related, says Elliot. At a recent cottage call, he turned the security system cameras from 4K to a lower quality setting. It was enough to improve speeds from less than one MBps to streaming the Cottage Life channel in freeze-free HD.
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