Guest post by Jennifer Tuohy.
Have you thought about taking the plunge into home automation, but wondered if it’s really worth it? As an early adopter of the DIY smart home (one built piece-by-piece by a homeowner, rather than professionally installed by a home automation systems integrator), I certainly had concerns when I first started on my home automation journey.
Do the benefits outweigh the potential problems? Do I have to be totally tech savvy to keep the place running? Will my home start to have a wayward mind of its own? After a year of building and living in a smart home, my experience may help you answer those questions, and decide whether the smart home solution is the one for you.
I started my home automation journey in early 2014, in the midst of remodeling a 1960s house. I was intent on integrating DIY smart home technology everywhere I could, but at that time, there wasn’t a whole lot on the market. That didn’t deter me, however, and I dove right in with two Nest Learning Thermostats and a Philips Hue Connected Wireless Lighting starter pack. From there I was hooked.
Thankfully, the industry came roaring up behind me, spewing out new products and driving down prices on an almost daily basis. Within a few months, I was able to outfit a large majority of my home with an array of smart systems.
While I’m not done automating my home (my wish list includes smart door locks, a video doorbell, voice integration and smart window shades), my 12 months as the owner of a smart home have taught me a few valuable lessons. Read on for some tips and tricks for would-be smart home owners.
My Smart Home Components
- Smart Home Hub: The Wink Hub, powered by Wink’s iOS app
- Smart Home Control Panel: iPad Mini mounted in the wall in the entryway running my smart home apps
- Smart Lighting:
- 3 Philips Hue Bulbs in the main living room
- 8 LED dimmable bulbs, controlled by a Casetta Wireless Dimmer in master bedroom
- 11 GE Link bulbs in every room except the kitchen, dining room and upstairs bathrooms
- Smart Security System: iSmartAlarm, with door sensors on all exterior doors and a motion sensor in the ground floor master bedroom)
- IP Cameras: Samsung SmartCam HD Pro downstairs, and iSmartAlarm camera upstairs
- Smart Alarm: Kidde 2-in-1 Wireless Combination Fire, Smoke and Carbon Monoxide alarm
- Smart Outlet: WeMo Insight Switch, controlling the main TV
- Smart Thermostats: Two Nest Learning Thermostats, one upstairs and one downstairs
My Smart Home Systems
I run my smart home through three home automation systems that are configured to work together.
- Wink is my main system. It controls my lighting and integrates with my Nest thermostat and Kidde Smoke Alarm.
- iSmartAlarm controls my security system, which includes a security camera, door sensors on all exterior doors and a motion sensor downstairs. I also have a Samsung Smart Cam HD Pro security camera which, while not integrated with iSmartAlarm, can be accessed and viewed remotely whenever I get an alert from iSmartAlarm.
- I use If This Then That (IFTTT) – a web-based rules engine that connects different systems via the Internet – to connect the devices that aren’t compatible with each other. I also use it to give devices additional capabilities. For example, iSmartAlarm doesn’t “talk” to Wink yet, but using IFTTT, I can automatically turn on iSmartAlarm through Wink whenever I leave the house.
How I Automate My Home
Using the three systems described above, my smart home works in the following ways.
I have eight shortcuts programmed into the Wink system that control all the lights, as well as the heating and air conditioning. When I open the Wink app on either my smartphone or the iPad control panel, I can select a shortcut and the lighting and temperature will change to my pre-programmed settings. For example:
- “Movie Time” turns off all the lights in the house expect the living room lights, which are dimmed, and the heating or A/C turns to low.
- “Lock Down” turns all the lights in the house off, sets the Nest to AWAY, which (thanks to IFTTT) then triggers the iSmartAlarm to arm. (When I get a smart door lock, this will also trigger that to lock).
For scenarios that I want to happen automatically at predetermined times, I set up “events” through the Wink app. These two events help regulate my children’s bedtime routine:
- “Bedtime” kicks in at 7.30 p.m. All the lights downstairs turn off, the Philips Hue bulbs in the living room turn red to indicate bedtime, the WeMo Switch shuts off the TV and the bedside lamps in the kid’s room’s dim to 40%, just enough to read by.
- “NightNight” happens at 8:30 p.m., when the lights in the children’s bedrooms turn off, the hallway light comes on at 1% brightness to act as a nightlight, and the lights downstairs come back on at 50% dim.
These are actions based on the concept, “When this thing happens, make this thing happen (and this thing, and this thing).” For example, I have a “Welcome Home” Robot that turns on all the lights in the house and sets the Nest to my preferred temperature range when I arrive home between 5 and 7 p.m.
I also use Robots for safety features. For example, “Smoke!!” sends me a notification on my phone if the smoke alarm detects smoke when I’m out of the house. It also turns my Philips Hue Lights to bright red, shuts off the heating system and turns all the lights in the bedrooms to full brightness.
In addition to Robots, I use IFTTT to fill in the blanks for devices that aren’t compatible with each other or don’t have the functionality I want built into the app. Here are two examples of IFTTT “recipes” I use:
Hue: IFTTT blinks my Hue lights for me every morning at the time we need to be heading out the door. It turns my lamp blue when it’s raining outside, and it flashes the lamp when I get an email from my boss on a weekend.
iSmartAlarm: IFTTT recipes set my alarm system for me when I leave the house and disarm it when I arrive, using my iPhone as the trigger to determine my location. I also have a recipe that sets the system automatically every night at the same time and turns it off in the morning, so I never need to remember to turn it on or off, but am always protected when I need to be.
What Are Some of the Benefits of Home Automation?
As you can see from some of the programs listed above, there are lots of benefits to living in a smart home:
- I asked each member of my household what they liked about our smart home and they all had the same answer: convenience. This is far and away the number one benefit. For my family, the conveniences of the smart home have completely outweighed any of the problems we’ve encountered.
- The ability to know what is happening in our house when we’re not there, either through a camera or via alerts, is invaluable for my peace of mind when I’m not home. Additionally, the safety systems I’ve incorporated into our house also help us when we are there: door sensors alert me if one of my children sneaks out, the Kidde alarm will tell me whether it’s going off because of smoke or carbon monoxide with a voice alerts, and the upstairs iSmartAlarm camera allows me to check on my children in the playroom from downstairs.
- A smart home is actually really fun. Our family use the Philips Hue bulbs for dance parties on an almost daily basis, and the two-way talk capability on the Samsung SmartCam means that when one of us can’t be there in person, we can still join in on the fun remotely.
…But There’s Still Room to Grow
Of course, there have been a few minor frustrations. Just so you’re prepared, here are four hiccups we’ve run into:
- Light Switches. The biggest friction point in our smart home is the intersection of analog products with smart home products. This is always going to be an issue with a DIY smart home that hasn’t been designed from the ground up to be fully integrated. The most common manifestation of this is our light switches. This screenshot shows the status of my GE link lights after I’ve been out of the house for the day and my children, husband and parents had the run of the place:
You’ll see that nine lights are “offline.” This means they’ve been turned off at the switch, rather than through the app, and now can’t be controlled by the smart home and any of its Events, Robots or Shortcuts until it is turned back on at the switch. The only way to avoid this entirely is to switch out all my switches for smart switches. In the interim, I try and program my events and robots to ensure the lights are on when we need them and off when we don’t, therefore avoiding the need for anyone to turn them off manually.
- Power Outages. The biggest single problem we’ve encountered with the smart home is a power outage. Of course, even a traditional home loses a lot of functionality during a power outage, but it’s what comes after the power outage that is a problem for the smart home. When the power comes back on, every single smart light in the house turns on to full brightness automatically, whether it was on before or not. This is not fun at 2 a.m., or 3 a.m., 3:15 a.m. and then again at 4:10 a.m., as was the case the other night when the power kept switching on and off at our house.
- Being Ahead of the Curve. The biggest frustration I’ve dealt with is waiting for the technology to catch up to my wants and needs. For example, when I set up smoke alarms in my house, the only smart ones available were battery powered. Local building code requires a certain number of wired alarms, meaning I could only have one smart smoke alarm. Today, there are wired options, but in this instance I couldn’t wait for the technology to catch up. With the speed technology is moving now however, this won’t be a problem for much longer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if smart smoke alarms soon become the requirement not the exception.
- Having to Use a Smartphone to Run Your House. While the smartphone is one of the primary reasons we can have DIY smart homes, some people prefer not to put their phone away at home and not be tied to it. That’s hard to do when you need it to turn your lights on. I tried to circumnavigate this with the iPad in the wall downstairs, but that’s not convenient when you are upstairs. For those who have their phone on them 24/7 or have a smartwatch, this won’t be an issue. And I get around it it somewhat by setting up my Robots and Events so the house responds to me rather than me having to respond to it. Ultimately, voice control will fix this problem. Using a device such as the Amazon Echo or Apple’s Homekit-enabled Siri, I could turn on individual lights, activate a shortcut and arm and disarm the alarm system all by simply speaking a command out loud.
Don’t let the potential problems put you off starting your own smart home. These issues are relatively minor when you offset them against the amount of time and energy you save. You will quickly get used to the convenience and added safety benefits of a home that alerts you when there is a problem and adjusts itself quickly to your needs, and even come to take it for granted, as my family has. While that does make it all the more frustrating on the odd occasion it doesn’t work, such as when the Wi-Fi goes out, it also reminds you how good you’ve got it when it does all work!
One of the most surprising things about a smart home I’ve discovered in my year of living in one is that it gets smarter. Many smart home products actually get better with age, thanks to over-the-air updates and new integrations. For example, the Nest thermostat I bought over a year ago can now do much more than it could when I unboxed it, such as turn off my lights when it senses I’ve left the house. The same would not be true had I bought a conventional thermostat.
Ultimately, I can see a future when my smart home isn’t just a remote-controlled home, but a conscious home—one that actually learns and adapts to my family’s routines. While that day may be a little way off, today’s options for home automation have been an exciting and truly useful addition to our lives, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jennifer Tuohy is a gadget geek who provides great advice about home automation, including tips on the best products to get you started in making your home smart. To find a large selection of the smart home products that Jennifer talks about in this article, including smart home lighting, visit The Home Depot.