The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a great little buzz word for Internet-controlled home automation equipment. Sensors and chips to control electronics have gotten so small and cheap that they can now be put into most electronics around the house. And apps on phones and tablets have gotten so smart that they can now sense those devices without special hardware. This convergence has led to more options for home automation than ever before.
I am automating my third home. I’m not entirely sure if this makes me insane or not, but I can’t help but think about how much the home automation industry as a whole has changed since the first few years of this century. The first time I dealt with home automation, the focus was on home entertainment systems and walkway lights. The systems were terribly complex and took forever to get the basics setup. There are way more options today, but home entertainment and lights are still the two most common items I see automated, with a much larger emphasis put on HVAC these days than originally.
Along the path of insanity that has led to me begging HAL to please, please just turn the bathroom light off upstairs so I don’t have to walk up there and do it myself, I’ve learned a few tips or tricks that might just help others looking to automate a home or office. If you’re thinking of getting started with home automation, new to automation, or in the midst of upgrading a system, here are ___ tips that should help you along the path to home automation enlightenment:
- You can probably do this yourself. Yup. There are elements of setting up home automation doodads that might be a bit complicated, but if you do it right, the complication will be in logistics, not technology. For example, you can choose to screw in a lightbulb and be able to control that device. Or you can choose to replace a light switch with a dimmer that you can control. Replacing a dimmer is a bit more of a challenge to those who don’t know their way a traveler or a circuit breaker. You can also choose to replace a door lock or you can choose to just install a device onto an existing lock without touching a screwdriver. You can also choose to install a simple, do-it-yourself solution, such as a Wink, or you can go much more professional-grade and use a Crestron or Control4 type of solution. Either way, these days there are so many options; don’t be intimidated!
- The biggest money saver for many is likely to be a smart thermostat. Controlling lights with an app is awesome. But for most, especially in areas where the temperature can get extra cold or extra hot, you can actually save a pretty big chunk of change by simply replacing a thermostat. I went from spending almost500 per month when I first moved to Minnesota from Los Angeles, to spending less than200. That’s right, about a two week positive return on that investment, that continues paying itself off, month after month. My first automated thermostat was a generic Z-wave. These days, I use the Nest, as I like how it integrates with dozens of cloud services.
- There are so many thermostats in homes. If you have an older analog thermostat, make sure your thermostat has a power cable before you install a smart thermostat. Otherwise you might go through a pair of AA batteries every other hour. You can always pull a new wire through the wall by tying it to the old wire. But fishing wires through walls for the first time can be intimidating. Especially when there are weird twists and turns that can knock the tied wire off. If you need to call someone for this kind of task, call an electrician. But chances are you won’t have to, except in older houses.
- Installing smart light switches is usually better than installing smart light bulbs. The most notable reason for this is that if you install a smart light bulb (e.g. Philips Hue, LIFX, Ilumi, etc) then the light switch needs to be on for the bulb to work. If there’s no power flowing to a bulb, the bulb cannot be turned on. Having said this, I’ve had situations where various smart switches and dimmers won’t power a light fixture or work with older wiring in my homes. In these cases, it’s much less expensive to replace a light bulb than to buy a new fixture, new dimmer, and pull new wiring. But if you use bulbs instead of switches, just make sure to tell your company you have to turn the switch off and on again if they don’t use the app or voice control. Saves for getting woken up in the middle of the night by frightened parents who think your house has been possessed (it has, just by Alexa).
- IFTTT is your friend. Before you buy a system, check that it’s compatible with the site IFTTT. IFTTT (short for If This, Then That) links together a number of different cloud systems. You can use IFTTT to run workflows on files when they’re dropped into a folder on Box, and other businessy tasks. Or you can trigger workflows on home automation systems that aren’t supported by one another. Harmony, Alexa, Belkin, Nest, Honeywell, Hunter Douglas, Lightwave, Withings, D-Link, Philips, GE, HomeSeer, Lutron, and even BMW support IFTTT workflows. You can link all these things together to push the limits of your home beyond the boundaries of what the imagination of the vendors of the devices.
- Don’t be afraid to string workflows together. Let’s say you tried using Belkin WeMo but switched to a Wink, and still have some devices on an older Vera. Now you can have IFTTT link them all together. But keep things simple. For example, don’t daisy chain workflows together. Instead try to link them all directly to the one place where you want to control them. For me, that’s become my Amazon Echo. Before I got there, though, I had a bunch of workflows that would call other workflows, just so I could try and use one app. Then when the workflows failed I lost trust in them and went back to doing things manually around the house. Keeping everything simple allows the workflows to complete with a higher rate of accuracy as there are fewer moving parts.
- Make sure you can return things if they don’t work together. Buying these things retail can mean paying a good 20% more than if you purchased them online. And buying them on eBay can mean paying almost nothing. But almost nothing is still too much if the items don’t work for you. Not all of the systems can work with one another. For example, my garage door opener wouldn’t work with a GoControl (which has the best GUI of a garage opening app out there) so I had to get a Chamberlain. Standards are few and far between. I like to start with a hub, like a Wink or a Vera, and then use their compatibility page to verify other items will work together.
- The virtual can talk to the physical world. When most people think of Smart Homes, they think of controlling electrical things. But sensors, controls, and robotics are helping us to bridge the virtual to the physical world. You can activate a Samsung Vacuum, sense physical movement, open and close blinds with Lutron mechanized blinds, open and close deadbolts, and even sense the water in your plants using a Parrot Flower Power. Yes, changing the channel or turning off your lights using a voice command is cool, but when suddenly little robots are running around the house doing your bidding, you start feeling like you have an army of minions doing your chores! And you can automate scenes that can help you wake up more gracefully and have a better overall quality of life.
- Your physical pet can set off your virtual workflows. Sensors are great. They can turn lights on when I enter a room and turn them off if I haven’t been in the room for awhile. I have four HVAC zones, so if no one is in a part of the house, I turn the HVAC off. But when the dog or cat went back there, the lights would come on. Poltergeists. A friend had a motion sensor above his computer that emailed him every time something moved. He had a leak one night and got about 1,000 emails by morning.
- Automated lights are not much of a money saver. Remember when your parents used to tell you to turn off the lights because you were running up the electricity bill? An LED light costs less than2 per year to operate under normal usage. Save the world a little natural gas and some real electricity and replace that old thermostat with a smart one first.
- Check on energy credits and rebates. Many power companies will provide energy credits for buying smart thermostats and sometimes even supported home automation systems. I’ve had friends who basically got free Nest thermostats. Credits and rebates have kicked off many an unhealthy addiction to home automation.
- You might not use this stuff forever. When I bought my first hub, it was over2,000. The last one was70 (and I used a50 gift card so picked it up for a whopping20). I switched because my old system didn’t work with Alexa, and I wanted to tinker with voice control. Once you put something in the wall, chances are you won’t want to take it back out. But the hubs and bulbs and things like that will be out of your life in a few years, if that.
- There’s always something better, right around the corner. Yes, I said that you’ll likely replace your hub in a few years. But that doesn’t mean you should wait. All of my dimmers that I have installed in the past decade work with practically every modern system. And I’ve been saving on heating and cooling bills the whole time. There are more and more options. There’s an update to Apple’s HomeKit right around the corner, according to rumor mills. Right after that, Amazon is likely to update Alexa. And after that, there’s probably going to be a substantial update to Wink. And rumor has it that… If you are always waiting for the next thing, you’ll never get to reaping the rewards of the systems you can buy today.
- If at first you don’t succeed, Google it. Devices come with instructions. Sometimes the words on the screen change faster than the poor tech writers can get new directions printed up and in the box. If you get confused, just Google how to do what you need (want) to get done. The other day I rebuilt the carburetor on my lawn mower. Why? Because I was searching for an authorized dealer to fix the mower and found a video on how to do it. The Internets are beautiful things (when you have Google Safe Search turned on that is).
- The Internet can help you find lots of things, but some of the tasks you’d like to automate might not be automatable. I have an Apple TV in every room in the house. I have Harmony remotes and hubs, with IR blasters. With these, I can turn an Apple TV on, unpause or pause things that are happening on the Apple TV, but I can’t shuffle my music or play movies. And that’s OK. When Buck Rogers wakes up, I’ll be able to control everything. Until then, yes, I might have to pick up a remote and hit a button so Siri can do a task for me instead of Alexa…
- Voice control is the coolest thing ever ever ever. I’ve been using various home automation systems for years. But the inspiration to write this article was from buying an Amazon Echo and suddenly not needing to pull my phone out of my pocket to invoke a scene, workflow, or just turn on a light. It’s still quicker when you’re walking by a switch to just hit the button. But now I can just tell the system to turn off all the lights in the house and viola, without getting out of bed or putting my iPad down, I’m ready to smack my knee on the dresser while going to brush my teeth.
- Don’t worry about the garage door any more. When you leave for work in the morning, you are often half-asleep (despite the best laid plans of your automated coffee maker). There are times when I get to work and worry all day that someone is going to help themselves to the bike in my garage. No more. Now, I can just look at an app. The same goes for piece of mind with a variety of things around my home, including whether or not my grill has enough gas to cook up salmon for my guests.
- Scan for leaks in problem areas of your home. In Minnesota, we have ice dams, where water backs up behind ice that forms, which then seeps between your shingles and leaks into your home. If caught quickly, they can be fixed by tossing a salt pellet up on the roof. If not caught quickly, they can cause the ceiling to collapse, or worse. I now have water sensors in the spots that are a problem. While insured, I no longer have to worry about paying the deductible and driving my home owner’s insurance rates sky high.
- Experiment. When I first got my Amazon Echo, my daughter said “Alexa, I like you.” To be eight again! To her delight, Alexa said “I like you too.” Later, I programmed my Excho to learn my commute to work. Now I ask about it while I’m in the shower (to wash the hair or not to wash the hair, that is the question). Sometimes the smallest feature you don’t think will be cool, ends up changing how you go about life.
- Automated door locks can save you from freezing your butt off. I live in Minnesota. It can get super-cold here (can anyone say hypothermia in 7 minutes). Fumbling for keys sucks. Bluetooth and key-code locks can save you boatloads of time. Sure, it’s 5 seconds, but it seems like much, much longer when ice is forming along your nose hairs!
- You don’t have to be home to let people in your house any more. There are a number of doorbells with cameras on them these days. When the doorbell rings, you can get an alert on your Apple Watch, take out your phone, unlock the door, and then get an alert each time the door opens and closes. When someone who’s stopped by to water the plants or clean the house leaves, you can then lock the door again. Heck, you can also trigger a workflow in IFTTT that saves the in/out times into a spreadsheet, so you can know exactly how long they were in the house. And if you have cameras in the house, you can even keep tabs on them (and the dog) without leaving the comfort of your desk at work, or hammock from vacation.
- Not everything should be voice controllable all the time. My locks are automated. I love this in the winter months. If my garage goes up in the PM, my locks automatically unlock. But, in AM when the garage door goes down, my locks automatically lock (growing up in the country, I’m terrible about remembering to lock doors). But, when I hooked my locks up to Amazon via IFTTT, I realized I could tell the locks to unlock from outside the house. Amazon doesn’t discern between my voice, my daughter’s voice, or the voice of a neighbor kid looking to raid my liquor cabinet.
- Be mindful of the environment. Some building materials suck for wireless signals. Ever put a wireless access point in one room and been unable to connect in the next room? Ever had wireless drop off when running the microwave? Ever tried to get a Wi-Fi signal in the garage? Sometimes you just need a more robust network. If devices don’t connect, move the hub for their protocol right beside them and try again. If the device is able to connect to your network, you might end up needing to extend the Wi-Fi into that room.
- If things seem like too much money, they probably are. Wi-Fi enabled refrigerators aren’t there yet. Trust me, I’ve tried. Likewise, there are many things you can put in your home that just aren’t worth it. Like that sensor-laden hot water heater. Eventually you’ll be able to automate all the things. But for now, keep an eye on the price and note how that money will net you a return on your investment. In some cases, that return is in the form of energy savings; in other cases, that return is on your quality of life.
- Secure your network and accounts. Finally, keep in mind that movies like Eagle Eye could actually become a little bit of a reality if you aren’t careful. All these devices, all these accounts, video, locks, lights. Use good passwords, practice solid network security, and keep the firmware updated on your devices, so they have the latest security patches on them. And never give your password to anyone.
Have fun with this stuff. When I hit my target weight on my Fitbit scale, my stereo played “We Are The Champions.” A friend rigged up a speaker in a skull that glowed and said the name of the person who entered their code into his locks. Most of the home automation world should net you a nice little return on your investment. But it doesn’t have to. Sometimes, it just makes life a little bit better.
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