One of my friends was talking with me about home automation and asked me what tools he needs to get started.
Before I suggested any specific tools, I told him:
1) The best tool you’ll ever use is your mind. Learn, research, think – make informed decisions.
2) You don’t ever have to crack open a wall plate to have a great home automation setup. You can use smart bulbs, smart plugs, and smart power strips to perform tasks that you might otherwise install a smart switch or smart outlet for. If that’s all you need, then don’t worry about the rest until you’re ready for something more advanced.
3) The right hand tool is whichever tool will best perform the task at hand.
Having explained all of that, he still wanted to know what to stuff in his tool box, so I put together a basic list for him.
Pliers and Screwdrivers:
You’ll need an assortment of screwdrivers and pliers, of course. If you notice the big pair with orange grips in the center, that’s probably the most useful hand tool I’ve ever owned. It doesn’t matter if I am changing spark plug wires, pulling a bundle of neutral wires out of a gang box, inserting a daughter-board into a control panel mounted in the ceiling, having a little extra reach and the curved end makes a big difference.
Having an assortment of smaller sizes with different ends is important, as well. One size does not fit all.
Regarding screwdrivers, I never have enough.
Whenever I need a Phillips, I pull 17 flats out of my box. Just like pliers, one size does not fit all, so have a variety and have plenty of them on hand.
Cutting Tools and Assorted:
Safety glasses – any time you’re working with rotary tools, anything that can throw specks into the air or your face, with any media that can spark, or when you’re working with flames, wear safety glasses.
Keep an assortment of cutting tools – use the right one for the job so that you keep your fingers whole.
A Sharpie marker is your friend. Mark things – it makes a difference! Example, when you’re removing an old light switch, put marks on the wall showing where the center hole was – it will help you center the new switch and the wall plate will cover the mark.
Glues sticks are amazing – they can help something stick briefly (or permanently if paper on a dry surface) or help things NOT stick (the print bed on a 3D printer, for example).
When working with electrical wiring, have GOOD quality cutters and strippers, always have wire nuts on hand, and use your meter. It takes 1 second to check for live voltage, why would you not check?
There are some tools you need to work with fine components. Don’t scrimp here, get good quality.
The blue and black sleeve holds an assortment of hardened tip tweezers with different shapes. Cheap tweezers will break and could fall into a place where you’ll never recover the conductive metal tip. It’s not worth it to save a few bucks.
Probes and picks have to be strong, high quality because, sooner or later, you’ll need to pry something open with the smallest opening and pliers won’t fit.
Have a solid mini screwdriver for working with tiny screws. If you use one with a removable blade, it is easier to keep up with an entire set, though a set in a close-able case will work very well, too.
With a digital caliper, you need to read reviews – it is very easy to get what you pay for. One very affordable pair made by General is available at Lowe’s for about $35 and is as solid and dependable as the $90 sets. Just avoid the cheap ones from Harbor Freight or Amazon – you’ll be glad you left them alone.
Sooner or later, you’re going to want to solder something. The good news is that you don’t need an expensive soldering station – a $15 iron from your local hardware store will do.
Two things I strongly recommend are lead-free solder (unless you absolutely need lead solder) and an exhaust fan (not shown here). The exhaust fan doesn’t have to be fancy, I use one that just pulls the solder fumes through a charcoal filter and that does the job – I also suggest you work in a well ventilated area.
Pictured is one of my soldering stations – I basically use the same that my Dad used – I know it gave him a few decades of reliable service, so I found this as NOS on the Internet and grabbed it. I also have a couple of older ones for spare parts (and my Dad’s, which I’ll need to put a new cord on eventually).
Speaking of my Dad, the top roll of solder is from his workbench, the last roll he used before he passed, and I enjoy using it with special projects I work on.
You’ll also notice a can with a copper scrubby brush for cleaning the solder tip, a tub of flux paste, some flux brushes and a couple of solder vacuums, a PCB holder, and a USB microscope. I’ve just turned 47 and while I still have 20/20 eyesight, amazingly, I prefer to use the microscope for working with very small components when I’m soldering.
Also, not picture here, I’ve got two magnifying lamps on my desk, a large one and a small one, which are a huge help.
Finally, you’ll notice the silicon mat that I put on my desk when soldering. The desk was my Dad’s and I don’t want to scorch it.
These are just a selection of the tools that I use on a regular basis when working with home automation or electronics. There are plenty of others, some obscure, some common, but the point is that you put together the toolbox that suits your needs, get the right tool for the job you need to do, and git’er done!
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