One of the co-founders of the Smarter Home club, Kerry Clendinning, put this together to help you think about the important goals and questions you should consider before starting your home automation project!
If you’re just getting started in home automation you’ve come to the right place. We are a community of enthusiasts ranging from beginner to expert and we even have some members who manufacture home automation equipment and write software.
As home automation has gained popularity in recent years, there’s been a surge of new products and new manufacturers coming on scene. The array of possibilities can be bewildering at times. We see many people joining our group and asking basically “what should I buy?” For anyone who’s just in it to experiment, have fun and has plenty of money to spend, that’s an okay question. For the rest of us, there should be a sense of passion or direction, driven by a specific need or desire.
Maybe you’ve just heard about a few neat innovations or you’ve seen a friend’s smart home and you want something like that, or perhaps you have a very specific idea of just one feature you’d like for starters. Wherever you are in your quest, let’s look at the kinds of features a smart home can offer, some of the different approaches you might take. This should help you get a better idea of how to seek solutions, whether shopping on your own or consulting with other members to get recommendations.
Here are just some of the kinds of things around your home that you might want to consider automating:
The big one is lighting. Most people who are into home automation will have some form of lighting control. At the simplest level, it’s the ability to turn on and off lights, either remotely using an app on your phone, on a schedule, using you voice or in response to your presence in the house, even upon your approach as your car nears your home. Beyond just on/off control, there are dimmer switches or dimmable bulbs as well as bulbs that can change shades of white light or even a full spectrum of colors. One big question is whether to change your bulbs or switches for smart components.
Next is climate control. Your thermostat and ceiling fans could have the same options of remote control, scheduling and automatic response to your home/away status and more. Smart thermostats can learn a schedule automatically and aim to make your home more energy efficient. You could even go so far as to change the temperature settings based upon which family members are home. Thermostats also open a wide range of options for monitoring. They function as temperature sensors as well as controllers. We’ll talk more about sensors in a bit.
Door locks can be automated, and there are an increasing number of security products that have smart home features. Alarm systems as well as cameras can be part of your whole-house automation goals. Garage doors, window shades, water sprinklers and water faucets… the list goes on.
Then we come to audio/video products. Anything with a remote control can likely become part of your smart home system, and more and more A/V products have a direct internet connection allowing other ways to connect. Having a different choice of music genre by time of day or who’s listening are just some of the possibilities. Just about anything that plugs into the wall can probably be automated, as well. There are simple wall-plug devices that allow on/off control of whatever is plugged in. Some even offer power monitoring, another case of a sensor. There are sensors for everything imaginable as well. You can use motion sensors to automate lights or music based on what rooms are occupied. There are temperature and water leak sensors to keep a watch on your home.
So that’s the upside. The world is your oyster.
Now comes the tough parts, and some harsh realities about the state of the art.
There are a lot of choices along the way that will cost money and time, and if you don’t know where you are headed in the long run, you might be switching from one technology to another, adding to the costs. No matter how much you plan, you are likely to suffer with this a least a little, because the technology is a moving target. You might settle for something today only to find a new product next month that really matches your goals.
With so many different manufactures in the game now, there’s no guarantee that everything you purchase will work well together. At one extreme, you might choose to limit your options to just one or a few manufacturers, trusting that at least the products they design should work together. This approach has its downsides. You will likely spend more on a given item, because you are locked in with the manufacturer, and they know it. It’ll be their thermostat, their lights and their cameras.
Some manufacturers offer products that require a “hub”. There many flavors of hubs, ranging from a nondescript wall plug that you plug in and forget, giving just the manufacturers specific products a connection to the internet, to full featured hubs that can interact with many different brands of products. Hubs usually cost more than the devices they are meant to connect, so it’s an investment, and one more way to lock you into their ecosystem.
It’s become a selling point to have most every smart home product be Alexa- or Google Home-compatible. This can be a good thing, if you already are on-board with those products and like the concept of controlling your home with your voice. The thing to realize, though, is there’s not enough smarts (yet) in those systems to interconnect your home in all the ways you would like. Think of the voice control as just an interpreter. You say turn on the lights, Alexa sends the light a command. You say close the shades….she closes the shades. But in no way does this mean that there’s any automation or link between the shades being closed and the light coming on. That’s a whole ‘nother topic we’ll touch on later.
Alexa- and Google Home-compatibility has a lot of wow factor, but even that comes at a cost. When you speak to those devices, they use Amazon or Google computing resources to process your requests. You have to be on the internet. Before choosing a home automation direction centered on voice control, or requiring any other vendor’s hub that works in this fashion, you need to ask yourself how you will cope during an internet outage. Whether it’s your own networking issues or a problem with Amazon or Google’s facilities, if the only way you have to turn on your lights requires the “cloud” you might be in the dark some cloudy day.
It is possible to get fully on board with a smart home and have no dependence on the cloud. Or, you might have a hybrid system where there is full local control, but only for voice control are you dependent on the cloud. If you decide early on which of these three ways you plan to go, you’ll be better equipped to ask a question like: “does the Samsung SmartThings hub require an always-available internet connection?”
Just like having Alexa controlling both the lights and the shades doesn’t mean there’s any connection to say turn on the lights when the shades are down, having one after another product that work with their own dedicated apps on your phone won’t make automation any easier. Your phone is again much like a translator. So, if you have some smarter things you’d like your smart home to do, like turn off the lights and lock the doors when you close the garage door and drive away, you’re interested in the next level. Some commercial hubs offer these sorts of automations, but you might be limited to their specific brands of devices, or to only a set of devices that they support among a broader set of vendors.
If you really want it all, like the choice to use the best in class light bulb and the best possible thermostat, regardless of whether they are the same brand, and you want to tie it all together with more than just individual control from your phone or by voice, you might look beyond the commercial hubs and find a software solution that runs on a computer or a custom-built home automation micro-controller.
As with most of today’s technology, if you want to do more you’re going to have to know more. So, if you come up with a list of needs/desires you’ll be able to ask good questions and make informed decisions. And the Smarter Home Club is here to help, so ask away!
SmarterHome.club is the website for our Facebook community, The Smarter Home Club – which is an umbrella for all kinds of smart home technologies – home automation, security, custom electronics, weather stations, alternative energy, you name it. DIY focused.
If you’re interested in joining the Smarter Home Club’s Facebook group, please follow this link:
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