Why Did Alexa Stop Talking to My Automation System?

As we increasingly wind down paths that are ever more interconnected and more software based, problems taking place out in “the cloud” will likely become more commonplace and more and more beyond our control.
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If you have any clients using streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or any of the myriad other options, then at some point you’ve likely encountered the (dreaded) “My XXX stopped working. What’s wrong?!” phone call. And as you know, this seemingly simple question has potentially layers of complexity in trying to offer an answer. What device is providing the stream? Is that device the problem? Did you reboot it? Is it the app within that device that is the problem? Is there an update? Is the service having a problem? Did they acknowledge any issues? Did they issue an update that broke something? Is it something with the network? Have you checked other devices? Is it something with the ISP? Is there a service outage?

Part of our job as integrators has always been getting devices from multiple manufacturers to all play nice with one another. This brand of VCR or CD player communicating via IR with that brand of receiver, and that brand of TV working via serial…all with a remote control by another brand. And for the most part, things work surprisingly well considering all of the little gremlins that could pop up at any second to keep something from working as it should.

As we increasingly wind down paths that are ever more interconnected and more software based, problems taking place out in “the cloud” will likely become more commonplace and more and more beyond our control.

Recently I ran into an issue at my own home that illustrates how some of these multi-brand issues could potentially rear their ugly heads down the road, especially as DIY consumer-tech becomes more widely adopted.

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Control4 and Amazon Alexa 

Several months ago, Control4 sent me an Amazon Echo to beta test prior to the company’s big OS2.9 announcement at CEDIA. I’ve been using Alexa on a near daily basis ever since and have found it to be mostly terrific. (If I have any quibbles, it’s that if internet upload speeds are slow-ish, Alexa can be laggy or have a fair bit of latency. The days of 10 Meg down and 1 Meg up don’t work so well with voice control.) I also noticed that my family started using Alexa as well, with both my 10-year-old daughter (who loves anything that will listen to her and carry out her bidding) and wife using Alexa to interact with our Control4/Lutron lighting system. One morning I’m just about to leave the house when my wife says, “Oh, by the way, that Alexa thing isn’t working.” Of course, being the alpha-tech-male in the home, my first thought was that she just didn’t do it right. So I go over and ask Alexa to do something.

“I’m sorry. That device isn’t responding. Check its network or power connections.”

So, I dutifully checked the network and made sure that I still had connectivity. All good.

Next, I checked to make sure that my Lutron and Control4 processors were powered up, connected, and working. All good. But I disconnected and reconnected the Ethernet cables on both just to be sure.

I tried Alexa again. Same thing. No dice.

So I asked Alexa some other things. “What’s the weather?” “What’s my news?” “Tell me a joke.” Alexa was definitely online and working, but just not talking to my automation system.

So, I checked to make sure I could control my Lutron and Control4 system independent of Alexa. The lights worked, the shades worked, the audio streams were good, and my DISH and Kaleidescape were functioning via IP.

“Ah!” I think. “It’s probably something with my Control4 4Site subscription, required to work with Alexa.” I turn off Wi-Fi on my phone, make sure I’m just connected to cellular data as if I were offsite, and connect to my Control4 system. And, it works perfectly.

Damn.

So, I rebooted my modem. I rebooted my router. I rebooted my switches. I rebooted Alexa. I rebooted the Lutron system.

Try Alexa again, and it still doesn’t work.

I disconnect Alexa from my Control4 system, delete my Amazon app, factory default Alexa, re-install it, reconnect it, reauthorize it to my Control4 account, and rediscover all my devices. Which all appear but say “Offline” next to them. That doesn’t seem good.

At this point I’ve burned up a decent amount of time and exhausted everything I can think of to try. It’s time to reach out to tech support.

I start by calling Control4. The tech is very helpful, and he logs into my account to insure that I have everything configured correctly (which I know I do because it had been working like a trooper for two months). He has me issue some voice commands to Alexa while he watches what is happening on the back end, and he can confirm that the commands just aren’t coming through to the system. I spend over an hour on the phone with him and finally have to hang up because I have to leave to pick up my daughter from school.

Before I hang up, the tech thinks he has zeroed into the problem. His theory is that my router is not letting commands through and allowing outside communication with Alexa. We tried pinging Alexa across the network and there is no response. (FYI, even when connected and working correctly, Alexa does not respond to being pinged across the network, so this is not a helpful troubleshooting step.) All traffic is lost. The C4 tech gives me a case number to call back, but suggests that I call my router company’s tech support.

After getting back home, I call Asus. This is actually not as painful as I imagined it would be despite the fact that trying to explain to the Asus tech that I am trying to get my Control4 automation system to trigger my Lutron lighting system by responding to my Amazon Alexa and that I think I’m having network traffic issues probably strains every minute of English training he’s ever had. He starts at page 1 of the “foreign operator network troubleshooting handbook” which is “Make customer reboot all devices on network.” I don’t even bother explaining that I’ve done this already—twice!—but just go ahead and reboot again.

I try Alexa again and nothing.

The tech has me log in to my router and double-check some settings. Then he actually goes out and searches for Amazon’s recommended settings and makes sure those settings and ports are the way they should be. After about 45 minutes on the phone he proclaims that the router is fine and that it must be an Amazon problem.

At this point I’m starting to agree and thinking that I just have a broken Alexa. I mean, it worked one day, then stopped the next. So I fill out an Amazon support ticket and wait for their support to get in touch with me.

A couple of hours later I get a phone call from an enthusiastic young tech at Amazon. Shockingly, he had no idea about automation (“So, you’re trying to control Hue lightbulbs or something?”) Needless to say, he can’t really understand what I’m trying to do. First he checks to see if my router is on the known-problems list, then he has me—again—go through the reboot routine, but this time I also reboot my Control4 EA5. I’m feeling a bit stupid because I can’t remember rebooting that piece up until this point because everything else was working. I wait for all my components to come back online and try Alexa again.

“Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights.”

“…OK.” Lights come on.

Well, hot damn! “Alexa, turn off the kitchen lights.”

“…OK.” Lights turn off.

Feeling a bit stupid that I didn’t try this earlier, but just elated that the problem is solved, I thank the Amazon tech and hang up.

Two minutes later, “Alexa, turn on the family room lights.”

“I’m sorry. That device isn’t responding. Check its network or power connections.”

DAMMIT!!!

Everything is offline again.

Exasperated, I reach out to the one group that I know that can get me in touch with help. I call Control4’s terrific public relations group, Caster Communications. I explain all of the steps that I’ve done and ask if there is any Alexa expert at Control4 they can put me in touch with to help me figure out what I’m missing.

About 45 minutes later I get a phone call Brett Molen, Control4’s VP of engineering. Brett has looked at my system and noticed that my main controller is stuck in a pending update mode. Two devices on my system were “asleep” and did not take a recent update, and they had put the system into update purgatory.

Brett explained that when in update mode the system doesn’t respond to outside commands such as from Alexa. He bets that if I cancel the update, the system will go back to normal operation.

I jump on a computer, log into my system, open the update manager and sure enough, the system is in pending mode. I cancel the update and open my Alexa app, rescan for devices and now everything appears ONLINE!

Dear, Sweet Jesus! Could it actually be?!

“Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights.”

“…OK.” Lights come on. #FistPump

While the cure was ultimately a “simple” fix, it caused drama that played out over a period of about two weeks, involved hours of troubleshooting and phone calls on my end, and made us realize just how much we’d come to rely on voice control in our home. Had it been at a customer’s home, we would have potentially lost hundreds of dollars in unbillable hours and had a customer seriously questioning the stability of their system.

As devices like Echo, Dot and Google Home become more prolific, we’ll need to be aware of all the little things that can potentially trip up operation. Otherwise we’ll end up spending hours on the phone bouncing from one support line to the next.

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