Whenever I tell people that my hobby is home automation, they stop and think about it for a while with a troubled look on their faces. "Oh, thats interesting!" they say with a nod. But all the while I can tell they're asking themselves, "What the heck is that?" When I inevitably get the question, I usually respond with a few examples—areas in my life that have been improved by implementing home automation.
Here are three of those scenarios:
Scenario 1: Switches and lights coming on when i get home when its dark
The first time I realized home automation could improve my life was when I noticed my girlfriend (now wife) struggling to get in our apartment after coming home from work one particularly snowy winter evening. She fumbled with her keys to get the door unlocked, struggling with her heavy bag. She removed her scarf, hat and coat, all while NOT stepping into the house to prevent tracking snow into our apartment (pulling the boots off was another hassle). This was, of course, all undertaken in the dark, since she hadn't managed to find the light switch in our new place.
As I watched her struggle, I said to myself, "You know, you should probably help her." And so I did. After a few days of tinkering I figured out a way to make the lights come on all by themselves!
One of the selling points of this new apartment was a very simple home automation setup. Basically, most of the light switches were automated already, so all I needed was a way of telling the light switch when the door was opened to complete the process. After a few Google searches, I ordered a door sensor very similar to what you get in a home alarm system, as shown below. I pasted the sensor to the door, integrated it into the home automation system and voilà, the lights turned on once the door opened! Hooray!
A Door Sensor
Then I went to take out the trash later that day and the lights turned on. I turned them off. When I re-entered the apartment, the lights turned on again. I then realized the flaw in my plan.
No problem! A few If/Then statements into the home automation hub made it so the lights would only turn on after 5pm weekdays and ONLY if the sun was already set (the hub had a very robust programming interface.)
The setup worked as expected after that, but more importantly, it showed me exactly how powerful a system like this could be. It made me ask the question, "What other tasks can I have my home do for me?" and this really is the central question in home automation.
Next: The House Knows Your Gone, Why Are the Lights On?
Page 2 - Scenario 2: The House Knows Your Gone, Why Are the Lights On?
During another of my eureka moments, I was in a rush to get to a dinner date. Since I am always late, I was determined to be on time this time around. I quickly made myself (barely) presentable and ran out the door, knowing full well that I had left more than one light on in the apt. But I wasn't going to let a little light stop me from being on time! Well, I made it to dinner a few minutes late and the fact that the light was on, wasting electricity and bringing our planet that much closer to to its global warming-based demise weighed on my mind the whole evening.
Home Automation to the rescue! My iPhone knows where I am at all times and my home automation system can use that info to figure out if I'm home or not. So, I setup a rule that basically states when I am not home, turn off all my lights. Now, its not a perfect rule (what if my wife is home?) but with a few tweaks it can work perfectly.
I think the ideal situation would be to let my Nest thermostat answer the question of "Is anyone home right now?" and then tie other activities into it, such as turning off the lights (closing shades, locking door, checking if windows are open, etc).
Why let the Nest thermostat handle such an important task? Well, it was basically created to answer that one specific question; it then adjusts the A/C system accordingly. With the introduction of the Nest Smoke Detectors in every room, the Nest system has a very good idea of when the home is empty or not, so why not use that information to my benefit?
Nest Protect Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Next: Humidity in the bathroom and Home Automation
Page 3 - Humidity in the Bathroom and Home Automation
Scenario 3: Humidity in the Bathroom
So we have the two big items covered already: Do something when I get home and Do something when I leave home. But what about when I am staying put at home? Do I actually have to relegate myself to performing menial tasks such as turning on my own lights?? The horror!
While I work on setting up a system that tracks me as I walk through my home and turns lights on and off for me, I was able to setup an easy system to deal with the bathroom fan. Like many people I know, I either a) never turn on my bathroom fan because I forget to do it before I jump in the shower, or b) forget to turn it off once I leave the bathroom if I happened to remember to turn it on!
Since controlling humidity levels in the bathroom is actually quite important in preventing mold, I decided to tackle this one issue the only way I know how. My first thought was to add a door sensor to my glass shower door. I really only need to control humidity when Im showering, right? But what about those times I use the shower to water my plants? Or clean off my sneakers? Or just to clean it? Making the fan turn on in those instances would actually cause me MORE work...can't have that.
Since high levels of humidity is the thing I'm trying to prevent, why not make humidity the trigger? So I purchased a humidity sensor and used it as the trigger for the fan switch. When humidity in the bathroom gets above 40% the fan switches on. Once humidity is below 20%, it turns off again. It works wonderfully!
In each of the above scenarios, home automation has helped my and my family in real, meaningful ways. Its easy to add "smarts" to a thing (and triple its price), but if it doesn't actually help, whats the point? Thats the main reason I have steered clear (for now) of the "smart" lightbulbs which have been introduced into the market. Unscrew a normal bulb and screw in a smart one and presto! Home Automation! Until you flick off the switch. Then the device has no power to do anything until you do what? Turn the switch back on again.
So the only real way to turn off that bulb is by leaving the switch on and reaching for your phone/tablet? No thanks! Not only do I not want to be forced to carry around my phone all the time, but what about when I have guests over? They will reach for the switch and wonder it doesn't react the way they expect it to. Its a cute idea, but not one I see much practical value in.
As I think of new ways to introduce home automation into my life (and play with new gadgets!) I will always keep that question in my mind. Does this thing help me in some way? Does this make my day safer? Easier? Take one pesky item off my To Do list or remove one more worry from my mind? If so, it gets a place in my home.