Smart Thermostats Vulnerable to Hackers

July 20, 2015

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Your smart thermostat may be smarter than you think. In order to do its job properly it stores your zip code, your Wi-Fi network name, and your Wi-Fi password and detects whether or not you are home. It uses this information to communicate with your provider’s cloud, to learn and follow your energy usage habits , and to switch your heater or air conditioner into low energy-mode when you are out of the house. That, in and of itself, is not a problem. In fact, it’s what you paid for. The catch is that these thermostats can be hacked so that they share this information with outsiders. They can also be pirated and then utilized to generate spam or malware from inside your home or place of business.

The problem does not lie with their Wi-Fi capabilities: their wireless communication is heavily secured. It’s their USB port which makes them vulnerable. The purpose of this port is to allow manual updates of the software they utilize, in the event that cloud-generated updates prove unsuccessful. According to indepdent research Daniel Buentello, this port can be readily compromised. All one has to do is hold down a NEST thermostat’s power button for ten seconds, then plug a USB device into the port. Doing so overrides the thermostat’s security features and enables the hacker to infect it with a not-so-friendly program of his own.

Unless you make it a habit of inviting hackers over for dinner, this scenario is not likely to take place in your home. The greater risk is that hackers may buy these thermostats in bulk, infect them with remotely controlled malware, repackage, and then resell them. Under no circumstance should you purchase a second-hand smart thermostat or order one from a random individual online.

In fact, if you really want to maintain your privacy, you may want to make due with one of those old-fashioned not-so-smart thermostats. To save energy, bump up the temperature (if you’re running the ac) or nudge it down (if you’re using the heater) when you leave the house, then set it back to the desired temperature as soon as you get home. (Do not shut it off altogether or your system may use more energy bringing your home back to the optimum temperature than it saved by being off while you were away). Sure, it may take your air conditioner or your heater ten or fifteen minutes to restore your home to the desired temperature, but that is actually easier on your body than stepping straight into a perfectly chilled house on a stifling hot day or into a nice warm house from the freezing cold. And without your thermostat broadcasting your comings and goings, your jewelry and electronics are more likely to be right where you left them.

Blogger Terry Portillo owns and operates ACU Air Heating and Air Conditioning in The Woodlands, TX.


Home Buyer Beware – Refrigerant Top-Off Masks Critical Problem

October 14, 2010

It’s an all too common scenario. You find a house you want to buy and have it inspected. The general inspector recommends that the air conditioning system be serviced so you ask the seller to get this taken care of. The seller calls out an air conditioning technician who determines that the air conditioner is low in refrigerant and charges the system so that it will cool properly. What’s wrong with this picture?

A sound, properly functioning central air conditioner is a hermetically sealed system. It does not consume refrigerant. If a technician has to add refrigerant (commonly known by the brand names Freon [R22] or Puron [R410A]), the system has a leak which will not go away on its own but which will get worse over time.

A small percentage of leaks will be coming from a valve, seal, or gasket which can be inexpensively repaired or replaced. However, the vast majority of the time, the leak will be in the condenser coil or the evaporator coil itself. When this happens the coil or the entire unit will need to be replaced. The only way to know where the system is leaking refrigerant is to have a leak search performed.

What will happen if the seller doesn’t have the leak searched and repaired? If it’s a slow leak, the air conditioning system may hold an adequate charge for a year or two. If it’s a moderate leak, it may hold a charge for several months. Sometimes, if the leak is quite large or if there are multiple leaks, the system could lose the refrigerant in a matter of weeks or even days. It is not only costly to regularly add refrigerant to a leaking system, it is also a violation of EPA regulations. If you buy a house and the air conditioner needs refrigerant, a reputable ac contractor will charge it up once, but afterward he may refuse to add refrigerant again until the leak has been repaired. In most cases, this will mean having the condenser or the evaporator coil replaced.

The possibility that you may have to replace the condenser unit and/or the evaporator coil if you purchase a house with an air conditioner that has been topped-off with refrigerant is not the only problem. When the refrigerant leaks again, the system may run constantly causing either the condenser unit or the evaporator coil to freeze-up. The freezing up and the subsequent defrosting of the evaporator coil (located in the attic) can lead to serious water damage.

If you’re buying a house and the inspector recommends having the ac serviced, ask for a copy of the service invoice. If refrigerant has been added to the system, insist that a leak search be performed and request a quote from the ac company for the repair or the replacement of the equipment required to fix the leak.

Blogger Terry Portillo owns and operates ACU Air Heating and Air Conditioning in The Woodlands, TX.


Rasberry Ants Have an Appetite for Electronics

September 8, 2010

Their appetite for electronics exceeds that of the average American teenage boy. They have already launched one attack NASA. Stories about them read more like science fiction than credible journalism. Who, or rather, what are they? Paratrechina species near puben, better known as Crazy Rasberry Ants.

Named after Tom Rasberry, the exterminator who first identified the species (hence the spelling), the rasberry ant invades and devours the electronic components of air conditioning units, security alarms, pool pumps, gas meters, and computers.

Scarcely larger than a flea, the rasberry ant makes up in numbers what it lacks in size. Rasberry ant colonies have multiple queens, with each queen laying up to one million eggs per ant hill per day. According to the Texas Department of Agriculture, infestations can reach fifty million ants per acre during their peak season (June through September). When an infested areas is treated with pesticides, the initial wave of rasberry ants die; then the remaining ants use their dead comrades as a bridge to safely cross the pesticide treated ground.

If your home has suffered an attack from these minute creatures and you’ve found a way to fend them off, let us know. You might want to let the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Department of Agriculture know while you’re at it! They’re still researching the answer to the question, “How do we get rid of these things?”


Make Mine a Double – When It Comes to Swine Flu Two Ounces of Prevention May Be Worth a Pound of Cure

August 6, 2009

With U.S. health officials predicting that up to forty-percent of Americans may become infected with the Swine Flu over the next two years , ACU Air plans to pay for swine flu shots for its employees and their school age children. This will serve the dual purpose of reducing absenteeism during the flu season and will prevent any of our service technicians from unknowingly carrying the virus into customers’ homes.

Immunization against the H1N1 cocktail of human, avian, and pig influenza strains may require two vaccinations. Consequently, ACU Air employees are preparing to roll up their sleeves not once but twice , just as soon as the vaccine hits the streets – most likely sometime in October. The dire forty-percent prediction recently quoted in front page headlines throughout the United States is based on a worse case scenario in which the vaccine is either not ready in time or in which a national vaccine campaign proves unsuccessful. We encourage other employers to pay for their employees’ and their employees’ children’s vaccines so that the forty-percent prediction does not become reality.

Some people have been wondering whether the mechanical air cleaners and UV disinfectant systems ACU Air sells and installs will help to protect their homes and families against H1N1. Not really. The flu virus is spread primarily through close contact with an infected person, especially when that person coughs or sneezes. You can also pick it up by touching an object that has the flu virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. Your best line of defense is to keep your distance from people you know to be infected and to engage in frequent, good old-fashioned hand washing. While it is possible that the virus may spread through an air conditioning system that frequently recycles air in a crowded, confined space (such as the cabin of a plane), the virus is unlikely to survive the journey and be spread through your residential air conditioning and heating system.

We recommend mechanical air cleaners and UV disinfectant systems for removing airborne allergens and for killing mold spores, rather than to halt the spread of infectious diseases in the home. Save your money and spend it on liquid hand soap and hand sanitizers and, of course, the H1N1 vaccine as soon as it becomes available.


Rain!!!!!!!

August 1, 2009

After a long drought and two months of triple digit heat, everyone in the Houston area yesterday exclaimed on their cell phones and in text messages, with a joy normally reserved for announcing the birth of a baby or a winning lottery ticket, “It’s raining here! Is it raining where you are?” Yes! We had all won the weather lottery.

The world outside my window is once again green — at least those trees and shrubs which survived the first two months of summer.

For me there is nothing more boring than a string of clear, sunny days. (Okay, maybe a presidential speech simulcast on a dozen stations). Some days I just want to curl up with a good book or watch a DVD or bake cookies. If the sun is shining outdoors, I feel guilty about staying inside to indulge in such frivolous pleasures. A rainy day offers me the perfect excuse. “Of course I would be outside weeding what’s left of my yard or washing my car or walking my dog but…”

This morning, following yesterday’s showers, it was so humid outside we woke up in a submarine world. Condensation coated every single window so that we looked out at the fresh, green yard through a thick film of water. I hummed “We all live in a yellow submarine…” as I snapped on my dogs’ leashes and stepped out into the wild, wet world.


The Mother of All Summers

July 29, 2009

The Houston radio stations are calling this The Mother of All Summers and with good cause. The local temperatures hit the triple digits in early June and have pretty much stayed there ever since. The air conditioning calls have been coming in steady and rapid as machine gun fire.

Pete and Sosa, our guard dogs, are now inside the office soaking up the air conditioning. Even though they have a pond to cool off in, it seems too cruel to keep them outdoors when we’re in the business of keeping people cool. Meanwhile, our service technicians, who brave hundred-and-twenty degree attics daily, complain that the dogs are receiving better treatment than they are!