Home Automation for the other 99%

Those with enough money have for years had the option of creating levels of home automation to impress their visitors. Everything from automated window blinds and lights to massive display screens supplemented with hidden surround sound audio systems have been the mark of those with massive egos supported by enough free cash to pay experts to wire every inch of their show houses. These impressive implementations have been supported by custom control systems and can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. For those living in multiple multi-million dollar houses around the world, this is a drop in the ocean.

But technology has moved on and it’s now practical for the average home owner or renter to build their own home automation system, tailored for their specific needs.

  • Multi-room cable systems connected to a single digital video recorder are now available from numerous cable companies or from the likes of TiVo.
  • Multi-room audio systems from companies like sonos or Bose, are simple to implement, and now that abode-spanning high speed Wi-Fi is common don’t require custom wiring systems.
  • Do-it-yourself stores and online outlets now offer a wide range of replacement light switch, power socket options as well as plug in control modules and even light bulbs that have integrated automation, making previously complex systems really easy.
  • Fan controllers, Automation IR repeaters and even automated window-blind motors are now available for prices not much more than their non-automated versions.
  • Room Thermostats, fire alarms and even water sensors are now all available internet connected.

So the components of full home automation are now available to the do-it-yourselfer, but is that enough?

No, it is not enough. The real power of a home automation system is to be able to interconnect all the sensors, actuators and controllers together. And that is where the millionaires their installation companies still are a step ahead.

It’s all very well to be able to replace light switches with ones that can be controlled from a remote control or your phone, but it is quite another to be able to press a single button, have the window blinds close, the lights dim, the TV turn on to your fav channel, the rooms temperature be set to 70 degrees and the sound system turn on, all when you relax in your chair.

But that is starting to become possible. Today all the consumer level automation devices come with their own method of control, and little integration, but this is changing. Companies such as Apple, Google and Amazon are starting to create integration between all the disparate devices.

There are still gaps, but it’s getting closer.

Today for a few hundred dollars you can buy all the components to pull most of your AV equipment together into a single controllable system. And for a few hundred more dollars you can interconnect your lights, light switches, fans, thermostats, fire and water sensors, A/C and heating units and window blinds together.

But connecting your AV systems and your environmental systems together are a bit more complex. It can be done in some ways using Amazon Alexa, Hey Google or Apple’s Siri, but this is still just a taste or what the millionaires can do.

The world is changing, and home automation is quickly going to become useful for the average home.

The challenge is that today’s DIY home automation choices are very poorly described. The googles/apple/amazons of the world want you to believe their latest knickknack is the way to go and want to amaze you with voice recognition systems. But these are only a small part of the solution. There are some incredibly powerful home automation offerings available, but you need to be willing to invest a lot of time to find out about them.

Here’s the best of what I’ve found over the last few years.

  1. For your TV and music the best system for total integration comes from Bose. The Bose lifestyle home theatre systems create a hub that allows all your sources (DVR, DVD, Roku, Apple TV’s etc) to be connected and a single HDMI cable to go to your TV. Then every device can be controlled from a SIMPLE single remote control that uses RF and not I.R. meaning that it can be entirely hidden from view. The Bose method of controlling devices from their single remote is the best I’ve seen from anyone. In my experience, it works perfectly and doesn’t require touch screens or complex programming. Bose pre-program their system for all the common devices you are likely to have, and it just works. Yes, Bose is expensive, and for the price there may be better sounding systems (depending on your tastes) but their systems sound great, and work simply, reliably and consistently. I’ve been using them for the last 10 years, and they just work, and despite what Bose will tell you, even their most basic lifestyle system from a couple of generations of tech back is just as good as the lastest one on sale today, there are some real bargains available if you hunt around on amazon or ebay.
  2. For lighting I use Insteon, not the most common vendor out there, but their range of devices includes everything you need to control lights, fans, blinds and AC/heat units, they are cost effective and also provide a range of remotes that mean you don’t have to use your phone to turn on the lights (but you can if you like). It works well, and the whole environment can be configured using a simple app on your phone or tablet to create any kind of macro you need, so a single switch can be made to do multiple things.

The future for home automation is clearly integration, and all the main vendors are starting to be supported by centralized control platforms from the amazon/google/apples of the world so quickly you will be able to setup systems that work and don’t annoy those who visit.

There are still gaps in what is available, but today you can automate big chunks of your home in ways almost identical to the ways millionaires have been doing for the past ten years, at a tiny fraction of the cost, and for the DIY-er in all of us, this is exciting.



Extreme Laziness 101 – Home Automation

Living in a New York City Apartment has many positive aspects. Personally I have become very used to doing without stairs, and doormen are possibly the best people in the whole world (except my wife of course). And it’s great to have service people doing all the service-ey things that come with a house.

But there is also the downsides of apartment living, the most obvious ones being REALLY expensive car parking and absolutely no spare storage space.

But there is one apartment living pain that just cannot be tolerated, and that is the fact that very few lights are hardwired into the ceiling with a wall switch. This means that you end up with dozens of lamps plugged into wall sockets. So turning the lights on when you get home at night can easily turn into a major enterprise, not unlike watching Doctor Who running the Tardis. With lots of rummaging under tables and pressing foot switches. Add to this that to start with you are performing this in the dark, you can see the issue.

There are ways around this. The easiest way is to get remote controlled lamp controllers. There are many of these on sale, and I think I’ve tried most of them. The issue is that when you plug little blobs of tech directly into wall sockets, they are at the whim of the quality of the power supply. So every year or so they break, and when you try and replace them, you find that the model you have been using is no longer available and so you end up replacing the whole lot. Only to find a year later the same thing happens again.

A few years ago I came across a model that was rather inexpensive and so I had no expectations that it would age any better than any of the others. I have been pleasantly surprised. I think they are now on their fourth year and all elements are still working perfectly.

What I didn’t know until very recently is that these devices are actually built on a standard that is now being followed by quite a few vendors. This means that I can actually add other bits. Which I have just done.

I now have two wall switches in the network along with five plug in lamps. And I have five remote controls that allow everything to be switched from every possible place in my apartment.

And probably the most important part of this whole thing, is that it all works simply.

I’ve just found a dongle that when plugged into the mac or pc will allow me to control all my lights from my iphone. That dongle is in the mail from Amazon as I write this, so is a project for a couple of weeks time.

What I’ve also found out is that I can control the air conditioners from the same automation network. And it turns out I may even be able to get a front door lock that integrates into the system, which in theory means I should be able to lock and unlock the front door from my iphone. I say in theory, because I suspect that my wife may have an opinion on that, and that opinion may not be in line with me turning out apartment into a borg ship.

Still I’m loving the light control we have.

If anyone is interested in automating their lights and maybe a little more, the system I’m using is based on the z-wave standard, and there are loads of choices available from amazon. The main lumps I’m using are from Intermatic and the model is an HA101K, and I’ve added a few wall switches are remotes from GE.