Home Automation: It’s Finally Time to Try It

Technology, automation, and efficiency. Three things nerds like us get way more excited about than your average person. (Who doesn’t love a good spreadsheet once in a while? Ah, that’s the stuff.) Thankfully for us, we’re living in an age where technology is evolving faster than it ever has before, and our phones, tablets, computers, cars, and other tech are all trying to anticipate what we want them to do before we even know we need them to do. Sometimes they’re suggestions are more useful than others. I didn’t know I needed to go to the casino during breakfast, thanks, Google Now!

Now, though, that concept is making its way to a place where it has some serious potential to change your life: the home. Home automation is becoming more and more popular with companies scrambling to make their appliances “smart” and able to communicate with other things in the house. Companies like Phillips have their Hue lightbulbs that you can not only turn on and off with your phone, but you can also change their color to any Skittle you fancy (thanks, LEDs!), automate them to turn on, off, and change their color based on other events (make them turn on when the sun goes down, for a practical example).

While the race to automate your home has been going on for quite a while, it’s now getting to a point where universal standards are coming into place and products are able to talk to each other instead of needing multiple apps to control each of the different appliances –a key factor for adoption.

Check out the video I did on how to automate your home, key points to be aware of while you’re choosing what system you’d like to use, as well as some tips I figured out while messing around with it (case in point: don’t put the motion sensor in the bathroom to control the lights, unless, of course, you like showering in the dark while flailing naked in a vain effort to get the lights come back on).

How to Automate Your Home

First up, you need a main hub system. This is the system that we’ll use to have all the other items in the house (regardless if they’re the same brand or not) communicate with each other. And important note here is that there are different standards that these devices all use to communicate. There’s a bunch, but the two that you should focus on, the most widely adopted ones, are Z-Wave and Zigbee. Think of them like the Bluetooth of the home automation world. Only difference is that they are each their own protocol and because of that, Z-Wave products can all communicate together, ZigBee products can all communicate together, but Z-Wave and ZigBee products can’t communicate to each other. Got all that?

Z-Wave Products

Well, that’s normally at least. The hub system I recommend happens to be able to speak both protocols and as such can actually be used to control both ZigBee and Z-Wave products. So, as long as you go with this system, you can ignore what I just said about them not being able to talk to each other. Um, sorry.

All in all, here’s how the process works:

The Home Automation System Hub

Smartthings Hub

  1. Purchase the home automation system (hub, we’ll call it) that you want to use. The one I’m using is the Smart Home Kit from Smartthings. It also comes with some sensors that you can use with it that we’ll get to later. (Alternatively, you can just buy the hub itself and then add sensors a la carte later, too).
  2. Plug the hub into your router using the included ethernet cable (and the wall for power, duh).
  3. Download the app for your hub: Smartthings in the App Store, Play Store, or Windows Store if you bought the above kit. Follow the instructions in the app to connect the app to the hub.

Adding Smart Sensors

Smartthings Sensors

  1. Sensors are the things you’ll use to determine if certain triggers have been met (door is open, motion detected, etc.) and then use that information to control the smart products through out your house (the lights, thermostat, garage door, door locks, etc). There are a lot of sensors that you can use. I suggest buying a few of the simpler ones, playing with them, and then deciding on what other ones you might want to add as you get familiar with the system and “needs” arise. (When you first get it, having it play the Imperial March from Star Wars whenever your wife comes home seems like a great idea, but, you know, loses its touch after a while).
  2. Here are all the Smartthings sensors. They range from detecting motion, to detection moisture, to open and closed for doors, drawers, and windows. (If you didn’t go with that kit, check the manufacturer of yours the ones they have –they should be similar, though.).
  3. While standing by the hub with your new sensor (Plug it into the wall if it needs AC power. We’ll move it to where you want it later, this is just to ensure it gets found by the hub), open the hub app and tap add new device. The app should automatically find the new sensor and you can tap it to pair it with the hub.
  4. Place the sensors in appropriate places throughout the house as per their included instructions.

Adding Smart Products (“Things”)

By products I mean the things that will actually activate/change/play when whatever sensor (or other criteria) has been triggered.

  1. Purchase whatever smart products you want from wherever you want. Just make sure that they are Z-Wave or ZigBee compatible. And, to start, I might take a look at the ones that the hub manufacturer lists just because they’ve already made sure they work properly and are already setup in their system to save time (see: nerds loving efficiency).
  2. Replace your normal home appliances, light switches, bulbs, etc. with the new smart versions.
  3. Open the hub app on your phone and tap add new device. The app should automatically find the new product and you can tap it to pair it with the hub.

Create Actions

Actions are the events that will happen when whatever events you have designated have been triggered.

  1. Open the hub app and tap on Actions.
  2. Tap on the category you want to create an action for.
  3. Choose the action you want and then choose which of the products you want it to pertain to.
  4. Save it.
  5. Test it.
  6. Rinse.
  7. Repeat.

That’s basically it. Repeat with as many products/triggers as you want and repeat the steps above to connect each as you add them. After that, you simply need to come up with the ideas to get things moving in an automatic direction. To help you get started with coming up with how you can use your new found automation super power, here’s some I ended up doing with the kit I had access to.

READ: Feeling lazy? Have the Umano App Read You the News

Automation Ideas

  • Garage door automatically close if you forget to close it and leave the house
  • Garage door open automatically as you arrive
  • Front doors unlocks as you approach and entryway light comes on when opened
  • Light turns on in stairwell when motion is detected
  • Send text when certain children or animals come and go from the house
  • Send text when the liquor cabinet is opened
  • Music plays from Pandora playlist to wake you up
  • Lights change color or turn on at sunset
  • Coffee pot turns on when it detects motion in bedroom in the morning
  • Have the lights in the room adjust dynamically to the scene of the show you’re watching

Do Even More with IFTTT

One more thing I feel I have to mention –IFTTT. If you aren’t familiar with IFTTT (I may have just changed your life), it stands for IF This Then That and it’s its own automation app that allows you to connect social networks, your phone, and, what we care about right now, home automation products, and allow all of them to communicate with each other and trigger events between them.

Head to IFTTT.com and setup an account, then click on Channels and setup your Smartthings account, Philips Hue, Nest, and any other smart products’ accounts. After that you’ll be able to click Create a Recipe and choose from the different triggers they have setup for those accounts and then choose the action from the other accounts you want it to control. An example is having the Nest thermostat (which normally can’t talk to the Smartthings hub) warm the house when your Smartthings presence sensor knows your on your way home or, since IFTTT has access to weather, have your lights go on at sunset, etc. Yeah, I know, go crazy, guys.

Turn Off Sprinklers If It's Raining

Feel free to let me know any you’ve come up with and how your experience has been with these systems. (And especially tell me about how yours became sentient and self-aware and has you captive in your own home. I’ll send help.)

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2 thoughts on “Home Automation: It’s Finally Time to Try It”

  1. I’ve had SmartThings since it’s KickStarter campaign and while it may be the better choice of what’s available right now, it’s still what I would call a beta product. It’s lots of fun at first, but when apps don’t fire as expected, it quickly becomes not very fun at all. Then you start removing apps. At this point I just have it turning on outdoor lights at dusk and off at a certain time and even something that simple doesn’t always work. Before ST’s I was using a simple and inexpensive Intermatic Home Settings controller ($13 now on Amazon lol) to control my lights and it never missed an event. It’s nice that I can control things remotely with ST’s, using my phone which is why I’m still using it at all but I have to always check that it’s working. Just last week one of the lights stopped turning on so I had to turn it on manually until I could troubleshoot . Also, if your internet goes down, so does ST’s as it’s all done in the Cloud, nothing locally.

    Another “cool” feature is Presence which you can use to monitor when people arrive or leave home, and trigger certain events, but again it’s so unreliable that I don’t use it to do anything important. You can use your cell phone with this feature or their presence fobs, but the battery in the fobs needs to be replaced WAY to often, so that’s somewhat useless IMO. In general I just wouldn’t trust ST’s to do anything as sensitive as HVAC control, alarms systems, keyless door locks, and garage doors. Go to their forum and you’ll see lot’s of complaints about these things I’ve mentioned.

    And finally, SmartThings was recently purchased by Samsung, and they are already talking about monthly fees for some features (big surprise). Throw in recent stories about how Samsung’s Smart TV’s can listen in on conversations and also inject ads into video a person is streaming from their own source (such as their home videos via Plex) and it doesn’t bode well for the future of this platform. I’m basically just waiting to see what Apple’s HomeKit brings to the space which I hope will be much more reliable and robust.

    1. Hi Tony,

      First off, thanks for the feedback and taking the time to chime in. I’ve been using the system for a bit and while I did have some issues with lights not connecting etc. I managed to get it to all work eventually and haven’t really had any issues since. The presence sensor has been working fine, too (although had an issue where two people showed up to the house at the same time and it cancelled out the event of opening the garage –it got a ping to open from one and then the other and that caused it to just not open) but I haven’t had to replace the batteries yet so I’ll be sure to take note of how long that goes before I have to do so.

      As for the Samsung acquisition, I doubt they’ll be able to get away with charging monthly fees for it since there’s so many competitors with out them and so many existing users of Smartthings now, it’d be pretty hard to get away with it, I’d imagine (but weirder things have happened, I guess). As for the listening in on conversations, technically your Xbox and cell phone (Google Now) do this, too. Generally speaking though, they’re only listening for a key phrase before activating further (to help save battery) and they don’t generally keep any of the voice data (I’d would be a huge, unnecessary burden on their system to save all of it) so even if it’s listening (which again, most aren’t until a certain phrase is activated) it’s not storing it and therefore can’t be used except right there and then to perform whatever original function it was intended to be used for. Beyond that, I could care less if Samsung has me cursing at my TV on their servers.

      I do agree with you though on the Apple Homekit front. If nothing else, even if the HomeKit isn’t that great of a product, the attention that Apple will bring to the industry will benefit home automation in general (see: NFC adoption rates at stores after Apple Pay was released compared to rates years earlier with Google Wallet and NFC’s original release). People just pay more attention when Apple launches something and I think that’s good for the industry as a whole –whether I end up buying the Apple HomeKit or not.

      Thanks again for taking the time to weigh in!

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