How I do home automation
After 20 years of tinkering with home automation, I thought it'd be fun to blog about how I've come to approach things.
First, the background
My entry into home automation was tinkering with old school, X10 powerline/RF lamp and outlet modules that were paired with remotes, motion sensors, and a "smart" module that you could program via a PC to begin adding automation.
Since then, I've played with tons of brands and ecosystems, but I've primarily used Zigbee, Zwave, wifi/mesh, and PoE devices.
I've gone pretty deep with Hue, Lutron, Arlo, Ring, Nest, NuHeat, Sonos, Amazon, Google, Apple, Liftmaster, Bond, and other random generic smart devices.
To tie the ecosystems together, I've mostly used SmartThings and HomeAssistant, but have researched and played with many others.
My personal guidelines
After tons of experimenting and many attempts at meeting the wife and guest acceptance factor, I’ve come to follow these general rules.
If a device requires any kind of manual input: a switch, voice control, a phone, whatever, then it's not smart or automated.
It might be connected, and a fun/useful trick to be able to control your home with your voice or phone... but these are conveniences that get old fast if you have to use them often.
Everything should still be controllable by a familiar and obvious manual input.
Smart bulbs often break this concept. If you replace a switched bulb with a smart bulb, you suddenly have to leave a light switch turned on at all times. Guests won't know how to control your lights, and you’ll just be annoyed when someone accidentally turns a switch off and renders your automations useless.
Everything should be able to be monitored and controlled while away. If for nothing else, it’s nice for the peace of mind to be able to check in from anywhere.
All devices should be open enough to be able to communicate with other ecosystems - even if that has to be facilitated by a hub.
Don’t spend too much time trying to automate unpredictable edge cases. Add simple, manual triggers for these things.
For things to be truly automated, they should simply react to what is happening around them, with the ability to be easily overridden by manual intervention for edge cases - from anywhere.
Many people’s entry into home automation is lighting. In our home, lights react to presence, motion, the angle of the sun, and current lux.
We’ve also gone a little beyond this by introducing circadian rhythm helpers into our automations. Later in the evening, any lights that are currently on will dim and get warmer. This helps chill things out and adjusts our eyes and bodies for bed time.
It’s also helpful to introduce scenes for random situations that are outside of a normal routine.
- Ambient lighting for movies.
- Lighting that resembles a lounge or club for parties.
- Brighter kitchen lights for cooking.
- Dimmer for dining.
Also, save yourself some time, frustration, and money by not making a mistake that many of us have… Try not to buy smart bulbs for fixtures that normally operate on switches. Instead, buy smart switches and consider “dumb” LED bulbs that get warmer as they dim - similar to old incandescent bulbs.
Smart bulbs are great for lamp fixtures or anywhere you want some kind of color accent.
As I’ve already mentioned, most things should just happen around us. My favorite inputs for these automations are:
- the sun / current ambient lux
- presence based on geolocation
- presence based on motion
- presence based on devices connected to the network
- object detection from cameras
- the state of other devices
My favorite inputs for overrides are:
- Wall switches. They’re familiar and appropriately placed. Use them.
- Custom programmed buttons. Lutron Caseta remotes are excellent.
- Voice control. It can be gimmicky, but it’s also super helpful when your hands are busy or messy.
- Phones. As a last resort or while away from home. The novelty of using your phone to control your lights gets old fast.
Dumb (disconnected) devices can be smart too
Don’t discount the utility of “dumb” devices that can offer automation. It can be cheaper and just as handy to take advantage of simple motion sensing light switches and timers for utility rooms, garages, work shops, mud rooms, closets, etc.
We also use “dumb” bathroom exhaust fans that operate by internal moisture sensors and they work great.
So, not everything has to be connected to make things automatically “happen around you.”
But also, you can buy modules like Bond to add connectivity and automations to older remote controlled fans, blinds, garage door openers and such.
Some of my favorite home features
Obviously, having everything react to our everyday life is awesome and I already mentioned the circadian rhythm thing.
But some other fun automatons have been things like:
- having speakers tell our dog that we’ll be arriving soon.
- having strategically placed lamps that briefly fade to orange and then back to their previous state after one of our outdoor cameras detects a human on the property. Then, simply pick up the phone or glance at your Apple Watch or other display to see who’s there.
- Notifications that tell us if we’ve left a door / garage door open.
- Notifications that alert us to motion / human presence while away.
- Ensuring everything (lights, TV, music, fans, etc) is turned off and climate is adjusted when we leave home.
- A bedtime button on my nightstand that ensures everything outside of our bedroom is off, cuts the bedroom lights, and plays some natural white noise for the night.
- Any manual intervention (e.g. changing a scene) will pause any other automations in that area until tomorrow, or you’ve left and returned.
If I were to start again today
I’d run more low voltage wiring and CAT-6 for PoE devices, video sharing, smart blinds, sensors, etc. I thought I ran enough during our remodel… but I want more.
- Wire as much as possible.
- Dumb Lutron motion switches for storage, utility rooms, mud rooms, powder rooms, etc.
- Smart Lutron Caseta for most lights, blinds, fans, and motion. Caseta is rock solid.
- Philips Hue for ambient/accent lights and lamps.
- Unifi for home networking.
- Sonos for audio.
- Apple TV for video.
- Nest for climate and smoke/CO detectors.
- Some combination of Nest/Ring and PoE cams.
- Zwave devices to fill the gaps with smart outlets, door sensors, motion, etc. Though, there might be nicer things arriving with matter/thread support.
- Ambient Weather Weather station for monitoring outdoor conditions.
- Everything tied together and automated with Home Assistant running on a NUC.
I could write and talk about home technology forever. If you have any questions about my setup/experience, want help designing a system, or just wanna chat home automation, hit me up or leave a comment. I love talking about this stuff and would love to help you build something awesome - no matter how simple or complex. I'd also love to hear about any fun automations that you're doing.