Home Automation

Home Automation Basics

In previous videos I’ve talked about voice assistants like Alexa on Sonos, smart doorbells like Ring, and home energy monitors like Sense. I’ve also been experimenting with ways to integrate my Tesla into my smart home setup. But if you’ve been intrigued by smart home tech, I think it’s time to take a step back and talk about smart homes in general, how these different gadgets even talk to each other, and what some of my favorite smart home gadgets are.

My home is probably on the verge of becoming self-aware and destroying all life as we know it, but for right now my family is really enjoying our smart home. I started my slippery slope into smart home tech with a Philips Hue light bulb starter kit probably about 6 years ago, which I was able to link to my TV’s Logitech Harmony remote control. When we’d turn on the TV, the lights would come on to a preset level, but only if it was after sunset. It was silly, but made me realize the potential of what a smart home cold do if you had the right hardware that could talk to each other.

One of the more common reactions I’ve gotten from people when they see something like that is, “why?” I can also hear some people already typing in the comments, “I have working fingers that can turn a light switch on and off thank you very much.” So do I. And yes, a big part of smart home tech is about convenience, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Smart homes can actually save you money, if used properly, on your electric bill by helping to turn things off when there’s nobody around to use them. And they can make your home safer and more secure. Lights automatically coming on when you arrive home in the dark to make sure you can easily see your way up a dark set of stairs to your front door. When a smart doorbell or security camera detects motion it starts recording, turns on certain lights, and sends you a notification when nobody’s home.

This kind of technology has been around for a long time, but it’s only been over the past 5-8 years that it’s gotten dramatically cheaper and easier to setup. And based on my personal experiences over the past 5-6 years, I’ve formulated a set of rules I try to live by when it comes to my smart home.

Rule #1 - Keep it simple stupid

No matter what you do, smart home tech should be additive to your user experience. It should never make something more difficult or cumbersome to do than the non-smart home method. Your family will revolt if you tell them that they have to stop using the wall switch and instead have to use their smart phone to turn something on or off. A good smart home adds functionality on top of what you already do every day.

You can buy replacement smart light switches that will always function like a typical switch, but they add on new functionality. My favorite brand for this is Lutron Caseta. It does have the downside of having a little central hub you need to buy, but it’s small and can tuck away anywhere in your house. If you’ve never installed a light switch before, you’ll probably be sweating bullets the first time you do it, but it only takes about 5 minutes to change one out. And the nice thing about Lutron Caseta switches is that they’re compatible will pretty much all home types. Some smart switches require a neutral wire to maintain power to the switch, but not Lutron. My house was built in the 1950’s and most of the inside switches don’t have neutral wires, which really limited my smart home options. That’s when Lutron came to the rescue. They even have little remote switches that can be placed into a wall switch location without wires, or attached to a tabletop stand. Essentially, you can turn a single light switch into a two way or three way setup with these little remotes. Or link that remote to a Lutron smart outlet, which turns a standard lamp into a wall or table top controlled switch. Very handy.

Philips Hue also makes switches that can mount to the wall with double sided tape and look just like a regular switch. Another great option to keep it simple.

Rule #2 - Keep your options open

The first thing to understand is that you don’t have to stick with just one brand. Just because you have a Nest Security Camera doesn’t mean you need to use all Nest products. You can mix and match these devices, but you need to make sure they support a common central service.

The three biggest ones are Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, and Google Home. There are other platforms like Smartthings and Wink, but in most cases those also can be tied back into one or more of the big three. My strong recommendation is to not put yourself into one walled garden. Buy products that support multiple of the big central platforms to give yourself more options. Look for devices that showcase integrations into not just your first choice, perhaps Amazon Alexa, but also mention others as well. A great example is Philips Hue, which works with pretty much every service out there. Lutron Caseta light switches and smart outlets are another great example. Both of those tie directly into Amazon, Apple, Google, and Smartthings.

And the cherry on top is if the device supports IFTTT (if this then that), which is a service that acts as translator between non-compatible devices. One example of that would be a robot vacuum cleaner like the iRobot Roomba 980, which doesn’t link directly into the big services, but it does support IFTTT. When my smart home detects that nobody is home, using Smartthings, it can let IFTTT know, which bridges the gap to iRobot and kicks off a cleaning cycle. There are more options than IFTTT, like Stringify, but IFTTT has the largest collection of supported devices. And in some cases you can have these different translator/linking services talk to each other as well. In my case, I actually have IFTTT and Stringify working together to create more elaborate use cases. In that Roomba example, I’m doing just that. I’m doing some crazy things with having Stringify track if a cleaning cycle was run on a given day, and if it wasn’t ... AND there’s nobody home ... then tell IFTTT to run the vacuum.

Rule #3 - Think about what you want to do

I admit ... I have a tech addition problem. Sometimes I’ve bought a product because of some shiny, fancy, feature that it does without thinking through if that’s a feature I really need or will use.

Don’t that mistake. Think of a problem you’re trying solve and then figure out what smart home gadgets you’ll need to make a solution that will work.

One example might be energy efficiency. I have an Ecobee 3 thermostat, which also includes several sensors that you can place in rooms around your home. Each one has a thermometer and motion sensor built in. On it’s own the Ecobee can tell which rooms are occupied and it will adjust the house wide average temperature to make sure the rooms with people in them are hitting your set temperature.

Well, right now I have Smartthings that runs a good chunk of my smart home’s setup, which integrates directly with my Ecobee and can also tap into those same motion sensors. If a room isn’t occupied for a certain amount of time, I could turn off that room’s lights automatically. Smartthings knows if my wife and I are both away from home because our cellphones behave as device trackers. If we both leave the house, Smartthings tells Ecobee that we’re gone and sets the temperature and fan settings accordingly. In the end, we’ve saved hundreds of dollars with changes like that.

Rule #4 - Have fun

Going back to the “why” reaction you’ll sometimes get with this kind of stuff. Who cares? Have some fun! When our washing machine or dryer finishes a load, one of the Philips Hue lights is the living room flashes. Do we need that? Nope, but we had all of the tech in place for other reasons, and were able to add that convenience feature on without much effort. So why not?

Not that I’ve done this ... but ... you could switch your Amazon Alexa keyword to “computer,” and create a routine to flash all of your Philips Hue bulbs red when you say, “Computer, red alert!” Not that I’ve done that.

Final thoughts

This wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive how-to, but more of a primer of smart home tech and the types of things you can do. And hopefully, if you follow those general rules, you’ll avoid spending money on tech that won’t work together, or worse, tech you have to replace because it doesn’t support the right services.

It’s a little bit of the wild west when it comes to smart home tech right now, but don’t let that hold you back. If you stick to brands you know that support the major services, 9 times out of 10, you should be able to get things set up and working reliably. I’m still using the very first GE smart switches I installed over 6 years ago for my outside lights.

Start small with something like some Philips Hue bulbs and grow from there. As you get comfortable with that first purchase, you’ll start to see use cases for something else that branches off of that first thing. Just keep building on as you go and needs arise.

I have a video planned around my experiences with a few models of Logitech Harmony remotes, how they’ve been integrated into my smart home setup, and with Amazon Alexa. Comment down below on what your experiences are with smart home gadgets, or if there’s a something you’d like me to dig deeper into.

And a quick update on integrating my Tesla into my smart home setup. It’s not going well. I’ve figured out some great ways to get Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri working with it, but my hopes of being able to trigger automations based on where and what my car is doing are fading quickly. Some of the deeper integrations I’ve found ping the car constantly and run the battery down. Right now, my best hope is Siri Shortcuts on iOS, which is not sometime I was expecting when I started looking into this.