Help me brainstorm a family alert system!
February 4, 2020 1:30 PM   Subscribe

I am a person who is very jumpy. I am also a person who often works in my basement with loud machines that spin sharp metal really really fast. This is a bad combination when my wife or child comes down to ask me a question. How can I fix this with buttons and lights?

Imagine if you will the following scenario:

I'm facing the wall doing some woodworking on my BloodSpatter 5000 Spinning Wheel-o-Death machine. My dust collector is on. It's LOUD. I'm wearing hearing protection and probably listening to music or a podcast on earbuds under my hearing protectors. I finish what I'm doing, turn off the machine, turn around and my wife is standing there. I jump and go "Ahhhhh!" because I'm jumpy.

I do not have to imagine this scenario because it happens to me at least twice a week.

This is nobody's fault, of course. I jump at work too when I turn around and someone is standing there. My wife hates it as much as I do. It happens to me ALL THE TIME but when I'm in the basement it's particularly bad because with the noise she can't cough or do anything to alert me that she's coming and also jumping around sharp spinning things is potentially dangerous.

I want to rig up something so that when she comes down the basement stairs she presses a button and 3-4 colored lights scattered around my shop blink a few times, alerting me that someone is on the way down no matter where I am in the shop. She walks downstairs, she hits the button a few times, I see a red light out of the corner of my eye, I stop what I'm doing and await my lovely life partner without losing a thumb.

I don't mind doing a bit of wiring, though I'd prefer it to be low voltage and easy.

I need: a big momentary button that I can put on the stairs and 3-4 somewhat biggish lights that are all connected to this button. I don't want anything battery operated where I have to worry about replacing batteries. Something should plug into a single outlet with either low voltage wiring or wirelessly going to the 3-4 lights and the button.

It should be that simple. No apps, no phones, no WiFi, no Arduinos or Raspberries Pi. I want a single button and some lights.

Texting me is not an option because I don't usually keep my phone on my body when I'm working. The vibration from a text is enough to make me jump.

My order of preference is:
  • A plug and play off-the-shelf solution.
  • An off-the-shelf solution that I could make work with a simple hack, say soldering a longer wire onto something.
  • A bunch of lights and a button that would work for my needs that could be put together easily enough. Links to specific products appreciated. Not just "Check out Digikey!"
Help me hack my terrible jumpy brain!
posted by bondcliff to Grab Bag (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Philips Hue Go light. Wife has phone app. Sets light to on/red when she is approaching. Sorted.
posted by corvine at 1:32 PM on February 4, 2020 [8 favorites]

Or if no phone is wanted, wireless Hue switch set to turn the light on and to red by default. This is easily programmable via the app.
posted by corvine at 1:33 PM on February 4, 2020

You might find success with off-the-shelf stuff intended to help the hearing-impaired. e.g. this flashing doorbell.
posted by cgs06 at 1:36 PM on February 4, 2020 [9 favorites]

Just to nip it in the bud: Under no circumstances will I be programming anything beyond setting a DIP switch or two. I don't care if it uses Logo as the programming language. This is not a solution that needs to involve code of any kind.
posted by bondcliff at 1:36 PM on February 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think you want something flashing as well, because a light turning on by itself may not be noticeable. Maybe just a strobe light, set to on, with a long in-extension cord switch that turns it on/off near the stairs.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 1:38 PM on February 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Could you wire in a switch that controls an outlet in the basement, and run a string of flashing xmas tree lights to that outlet?
posted by slkinsey at 1:41 PM on February 4, 2020 [20 favorites]

Maybe use a string (or more) of christmas lights, and a switched extension cord? They make remote switches (representative link), so you could get the switch a reasonable distance from an outlet. You could get twinkling lights, or your wife could manually toggle it to create the flash.

Or on preview, use the switch to turn on a strobe light instead.
posted by yuwtze at 1:42 PM on February 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

A vehicle warning strobe light, wired to a switch at the top of the stairs.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:56 PM on February 4, 2020

One thought: set your phone where you can see it and enable flashing alerts when it rings or receives a text. iPhone and Android instructions.
posted by WCityMike at 1:57 PM on February 4, 2020

Wireless visual doorbell?
posted by jquinby at 2:02 PM on February 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

Where is the basement light switch located? I ask because my husband plays his drums in the basement and if I have to ask him a question, I just flick the lights a couple times (the switch is located at the top of the stairs), he stops, I ask the question, life resumes. Might this be a possible solution?
posted by cooker girl at 2:04 PM on February 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

What about some mirrors so you can see people coming from more angles?
posted by mskyle at 2:04 PM on February 4, 2020 [7 favorites]

I'm assuming there's a door at the top of the stairs, and that you normally work with it closed because of the noise? Consider using a door switch like this to eliminate the necessity that the person coming down remembers to use a separate signaling system. Door opens, lights come on automatically.
posted by contraption at 2:07 PM on February 4, 2020 [9 favorites]

Have you considered arranging your BloodSpatter 5000 Spinning Wheel-o-Death machine so that you can operate it while facing the door?

...alternately, definitely go for door switches or the like because you need something foolproof; your family is not always going to remember to hit any particular switch or button.
posted by ulmont at 2:10 PM on February 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Or a motion sensor placed so your normal work won't trigger it paired with a smart bulb right where you'll see it. Means family members won't forget to press the special button.
posted by scruss at 2:12 PM on February 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

The person above who suggested a Hue bulb and said it was "programmable" was being a little bit liberal with the term. It's in the app and you switch a button. There is no coding involved. :D
posted by ancient star at 2:22 PM on February 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of machines facing all directions.

Mirrors would not work due to the layout of the shop.

The door is always left ajar so the cats can come down.

The stairs are not visible from my shop area so I can’t see anyone until they come around the corner into the shop.

The switch method is less important than the signal. I need something that I will notice but won’t distract me too much or make me jump.

The light switch is at the stairs but flicking the lights would put me in darkness and, even if for only a second, could be a safety issue.

There has to be a solution that does not involve an app.

The lighted doorbells Or Christmas lights are going in the right direction.
posted by bondcliff at 2:28 PM on February 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think you can do with with some Ye Olde X10 home automation. This controller can be powered by a wall outlet to save you from having to do any wiring, but others can be installed like light switches for a neater look. Then deploy lamp modules as needed. Put the controller at the entrance to the shop/top of the stairs and a visitor can work the switches until they get your attention. (Please confirm this combination will work before you purchase)
posted by exogenous at 2:30 PM on February 4, 2020

Do you have dimmable lights down there? I wouldn't notice a small flashing light while doing intensive crafty things with my head down but I would notice if the ambient light went ooOOooOO. Surely you can train your family not to plunge you into absolute darkness, and adding a dimmer switch seems like a pretty minimal wiring job.
posted by fountainofdoubt at 2:47 PM on February 4, 2020

Don’t want to thread sit but I do want to answer questions. Area is lit by several non-dimable LED shop lights. I’d like a colored light so I’d be likely to notice it.
posted by bondcliff at 2:51 PM on February 4, 2020

I think blinking christmas/string lights is a good way to go, good for large area coverage so you can put them all around your field of view, and at higher and lower levels. Around Christmas they sell power strips that have a big red push button on them, for this purpose - could plug the lights into it and mount it to the wall right as someone comes into your shop. Set the norm that people stop at the shop door, hit the big red button, and wait until you turn around.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:56 PM on February 4, 2020 [9 favorites]

Yeah, by programmable all I mean is that you pair the switch with the light in the app and choose the colour you want it to turn. Then when you press the switch the light comes on. No further app interaction required.
posted by corvine at 3:14 PM on February 4, 2020

Big second to LobsterMitten's idea.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:34 PM on February 4, 2020

I was pleasantly surprised at how well this wireless light switch worked. It's been years since I set it up, but my memory is that it just worked. Could you attach it to a lamp?

That said I stopped using it after I switched over to hue lights. Setup requires an app, but day to day use does not. I use a mix of physical switches and motion sensors.
posted by phil at 4:09 PM on February 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

I know this is lateral to your suggestion, but when my parents did this they actually just had a land line telephone with the bell set to STUN level of loudness and if my dad didn't answer, my mom would call again in a few minutes.
posted by jessamyn at 4:09 PM on February 4, 2020

Look at this guy! You want a couple of them, enough so one is always in your line of vision, and you want them to light up when the basement door is opened. So you need that to light up when a circuit is broken or a proximity sensor is tripped.

Ring makes a sensor but if you don’t want to use them, I bet there are other options.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:41 PM on February 4, 2020

What about LED strip lights that all the teenagers want right now? Leave the remote velcroed in an easy spot.
posted by Ftsqg at 4:42 PM on February 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm going to vote for christmas lights or LED strips strung up all around your walls in your basement. In the case of Xmas lights, you'd ideally have them plugged into an outlet controlled by a light switch near the stairs; in the case of LED strips, you can probably just velcro the remote control to the wall near the stairs with those 3M command strip things. It seems that this would be a lot easier than having separate, individual lamps or lights. Plus, if you have them strung up everywhere, you don't have to worry about getting the exact placement right into your potential sight lines.
posted by mhum at 5:22 PM on February 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Another lateral suggestion: a mirror mounted to your glasses, like this or this
posted by ocherdraco at 6:37 PM on February 4, 2020

if the door is left open for cats to come and go as they please, and the coming and the going of the cats does not alarm or distress you, the extremely obvious solution is for all the humans in your home to dress as extremely realistic cats at all times.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:00 PM on February 4, 2020 [43 favorites]

While I concur with the christmas lights, I still think you should *also* consider scattering a few convex safety mirrors around. They're reasonably inexpensive (well, the cost goes up exponentially as they get larger), but if you stay on the smaller side you could put a couple quarter-domes plus a few circular ones and you'd have a belt-and-suspenders approach (which I personally prefer, being someone who works with milling machines flinging chunks of steel everywhere).
posted by aramaic at 10:24 AM on February 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have on of those remote extension switch cords mentioned above and that plus Christmas lights is probably the least hacky solution other than permanently wiring a switch.

But some more mirrors is also a good idea regardless.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:21 AM on February 7, 2020

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