Home Automation; more than a gimmick

You might be able to control some lights using an app. You might even be able to use your voice to start a series on the television. But is this really home automation or are these just cool gadgets to show at a party? My home automation projects involve sitting in the dark on the toilet and being cut-off from “binge watching” at 00:00. I therefore believe Home Automation can add more value to your life.  : - )

Image via www.vpnsrus.com.
Image via www.vpnsrus.com

Back in the days

When I started with Home Automation back in 2014, I started adding smart switches to turn on the lights remotely with my mobile app. Soon I realized I was too impatient to use an app to turn on lights; opening the mobile device, opening the app, going to the specific lights and finally turn them on. I bought a wireless pulse-switch to connect to the smart switches. I wasn’t really satisfied; it wasn’t that smart and I needed a control center so I could programmatically add more value through automation and scenes.

Automate all things (at home)

Now having smart switches, a controlling switch and a control center with scripts again made me unsatisfied; is this it, I can play with the lights? So I added multi sensors to sense the surroundings and act on it.

Back to the drawing board

At this moment I realized that my current pattern: “IF Home automation setup is unsatisfied → Buy more stuff” is great for my suppliers.That wasn’t my intention but I couldn’t directly answer what my real goal was. Why did I want this?One obvious reason is that as an engineer I’m attracted to technology. I want to understand it and want to use it; not specifically in that order.As a software engineer I am lazy by heart. This formed the basis for the way I implemented my home automation; I want my house to assist with and adapt to the people in the home. It should be ubiquitous without being present. It should add value by automating interactions of the residents with their home.

Sensors sense, actors act

By placing multi-sensors in a room, data was retrieved. Motion for instance is great sensor data to work with. In our home we have places where sensor data is really useful. We have places where people move but do not stand still and have specific needs. This has resulted in the following places where no light switches are found any longer:

  • Entrance — No need to switch on the lights when you enter the home. The time the light is on is short because you won’t be staying here very long.
  • Stairs — very easy at night with young kids who need to go to the toilet. The lights do not switch on but based on sunrise and sunset the lights also lower so you won’t be blinded at night.
  • Kitchen — If you are in the kitchen, you’re busy cooking or grabbing something from the fridge; the light switches on for you and stays on a bit longer while the primary use-case in the kitchen, cooking, probably requires a bit more time.
  • Toilet — Motion in a toilet is limited but so is presence. By keeping the lights on longer after motion is recognized, this place no longer needs a light switch.

Special project: The living room — Failed

In my attempt to kill all switches in the home, the living room was a challenge. The living room is where you normally sit without motion. What to do in this case? I found a clever solution which uses smartplugs to recognize if the television is on or off. By using motion and the television you can control the lights. While setting it up, I came to know my Television and TV box are using quite a lot of electricity while on stand-by. I therefore decided to have a wireless pulse switch to control a few lights downstairs plus switching on the smart plug for the TV as well.

Special project: the bathroom

Note: this project is still in progress

Our bathroom contains both the shower as the toilet. This makes using just motion a challenge because it could result in showering in the dark. I’m currently busy with a solution which can use both motion and a pulse switch. This way I can support the nightly toilet visits without using the light switch (plus dimmed lights) and through the use of the light switch, you can also use the shower (this should not interfere with the motion sensor of course)

Lowering my footprint

A side effect of my home automation was that I became aware of my energy consumption and specifically the unneeded energy consumption. I therefore switched all lights to dimmable led lights. Not only do the led lights use less energy but by default I don’t use them at 100% strength.

energy usage
My electricity usage this week

My electricity usage this week

As a result of removing switches, the lights were only on when required for some of the rooms (see above.) Unfortunately, this led to a change in behaviour for the kids; they forget to switch off the lights more often. All kids rooms have been upgraded to utilize a wired and wireless light switch with dimmable leds. A separate scene makes sure that each morning at 08:30 (start of school) the lights in the home are switched off. The scene runs at 00:00 too, making sure we won’t stay up too late.

Note: it could be made smarter to combine it with motion detection.

Finally, as already discussed, smart plugs help both comfort and decrease stand-by electricity usage. Current train of thought/questioning is if I need my WIFI mesh to be fully operational when not at home. This train of thought led me to more devices which probably don’t need to be on stand-by when nobody is at home. Will I schedule it or use motion? Still undecided.

ROI?

A very valid point to argue is the Return On Investment; do all these improvements pay off? Probably not, to be honest. It all does add up but it probably takes many years before all the investments pay off while not taking into consideration replacement of broken parts.

My biggest (financial) improvement has been the replacement of my central heating (it died) with the use of a smart thermostat. Through a tight schedule and presence detection, I was able to decrease my gas usage by more than 50% compared to the previous years.

I’ve been looking into ways to improve and optimize heating in my home but so far I’m only measuring temperatures for many rooms. I haven’t made up my mind yet how I can combine the central heating with the sensor data and the smart thermostat in a way it adds value.

Safety

One of the latest additions has been the addition of fire/smoke detectors in the home. While reading about the use, I learned that you need smoke detectors per bedroom and where electrical devices are in use. In short: that’s a lot of smoke detectors.

The smoke detectors I selected can integrate with the rest of the home automation. These devices are both sensor (smoke/fire) as actors (siren.)

Installing them per room was the easy part but what if fire/smoke is detected? The siren goes off and then you might need to leave your home. If it happens at night and all are asleep and smoke is growing everywhere? The alarm might just not do it completely. Through integrating the smoke/fire detectors with the home automation, I’m able to also switch on the lights in the home so people can (hopefully) see something while leaving the home in a safe way.

Conclusion

Is home automation a party trick or something more? I believe it is more than just a gimmick. It does require quite some investment in both money as time. If you are not into software engineering, there is a steep learning curve which very well could mean it remains a nice gimmick and a disappointing experience.

Without the possibility to tie things together, the main feeling that remains is “is this all?” The current state of home automation is still immature and user-friendly alternatives are too expensive or lack added value.

If you are into Software Engineering and have spare time (and money) it is a lot of fun to explore the possibilities and make your own (and others) life better and safer.

Who Am I?

My name is Freek van Gool. I am an IT engineer by heart. I love innovation and (IT) technology. I am continuously on the look-out for the next (big) thing and ways to utilize it. I will probably be working hands-on with IT technology for the remainder of my days while also fulfilling the role of CTO at Techspire.

Do you think you have what it takes to work with us? At Techspire we’re looking for people who love technology as much as we do and are looking to push themselves to expand their knowledge. Also, we love beer (and whisky!)

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