One of the projects I’ve been tinkering with constantly for the past nine months or so that we’ve lived at our new house is home automation. I’ve been into home automation since about 1996 and have had a fully automated house ever since 2003 or so. Even my RV was so automated that it unlocked when I got near it and adjusted the lights automatically.
Home automation is one of those things that seems unnecessary until you start doing it, and then you can’t imagine going back. There are huge benefits from automating even a few small things, but those benefits literally multiply as you add additional devices, since every device can trigger or work together with any other device.
In this post I want to talk about the high level ideas behind the automations, rather than the actual code behind them. The main idea is to give non-automators some incentive to give it a try, and to give automators ideas on other things they could create.
Never touch a light switch
One of my main goals is to ensure that I rarely have to touch a light switch. In the same way that a restaurant or hotel lobby always his the correct lighting and you don’t have to adjust it manually, I want my house to do the same. I used to do this entirely with motion detectors, but now I do it based almost exclusively on presence and time. I have three main scenes: morning, evening, and sleep. I also do a few things at sunrise, like turn off outdoor security lights.
Evening is really the most important scene. I typically have every light in the house on, but most of them at only 5-10% brightness. Most areas don’t need task lighting, and this creates a warm and comfortable ambiance. LED lights dimmed to 5-10% use almost no power but have a big visual effect. I also have a different version for when no one is home so that lights that aren’t visible from outside (like bathroom lights) are completely off.
I also have a few complicated scenarios. If my wife goes to bed first, as she usually does, it turns just the bedroom lights off, except that it leaves the overhead light on at 1% red. This is dark enough that you can’t tell the difference with your eyes closed, but that I can find my way into bed without hitting my shins on anything. Bed occupancy is reported by the Withings sleep tracker, which sits under the mattress and works better than any other sleep tracker I’ve used.
It’s generally good to have a few motion detectors as well. I haven’t fully set them up yet, but I plan to have the kitchen light up on motion. I used to have under-bed motion detectors to turn on the bathroom lights if I got out of bed after falling asleep.
I love coming up with invisible ways to save power. My goal is generally to make it seem like everything is on and running all the time, but to actually have it off whenever I wouldn’t notice. I’m on a plan where electricity is 10x the price during peak hours for four months a year, so during those hours everything shuts down. The water heater goes into hyper-efficient mode (it’s a hybrid), the car charger turns off, the air conditioner goes up a few degrees (but pre-freezes the house for the preceding hour), the pool pump turns off, the water boiler turns off, etc. I can still turn these things on manually if I want to, but most of the time I never notice that they’re off.
If we’re not home the house also goes into a more extreme version of power saving mode where curtains close to keep the heat out, the water heater turns off entirely, etc
Theater / Karaoke Mode
I also really like making special modes. With one button on the remote my projector screen pulls down, any light that would cast on the screen turns off, and the screen backlight dims. Similar things happen in karaoke mode, but the disco lights also turn on so that it feels like a real karaoke place. It’s fun to have a totally normal living room one minute and then in the next it feels like a movie theater or karaoke room.
Other fun things and future plans
I stopped doing this now that all of my computers mine ethereum, but I used to automate my computer waking up and falling asleep. I would sleep when I was asleep or gone and be awake when I was around and awake. It felt to me like it was always on, but really it slept for about half the day.
I put a thermometer in the sauna and have it announce on all the speakers around the house when the sauna is ready. When I tell google that I’m going in the sauna it dims the lights in the room the sauna is in and plays cheesy spa music inside the sauna.
Our old apartment had an alarm on the front gate. Arriving home was supposed to disable it, but it didn’t always work, so I made it turn the porch light green when I arrived home and it was disarmed. If it wasn’t green I knew I had to check to do it manually.
I’m working on setting up the person detection on my security system. My ultimate goal is to make it recognize my friends and unlock the door for them, but not for others. I also want it to play hawaiian music whenever we’re in the backyard, but there are too many false positives at the moment.
One room in our house has big windows that cast the sun on the wall. I want to hang art there but don’t want it to be damaged, so I may set up a system to track the height of the sun and to always adjust roller shades to shade the art. That wall is only sunned in the early morning so I could definitely do this in a much easier way, but I like the challenge.
Hubitat or Home Assistant are probably the best hubs right now. I use Hubitat but am considering moving to Home Assistant, which is a bit more complicated. Hubitat is a really good balance of easy and powerful.
Philips Hue and Sengled are good RGB bulbs. Hue is much more expensive but maybe a bit more reliable (I had a sengled bulb that desynchronized a couple times).
I tend to buy Z-Wave and Zigbee protocol devices since I always know they can work with any home automation system. Zigbee is considered to be better for locks and sensors. Z-Wave has a lot more random devices. Anything you can imagine can be automated through Z-Wave.
You can buy little relays from Qubino that you can use for just about anything. I isolated the leads in my sauna control panel so that I can solder wires to them and to a Qubino to turn it on and off remotely. I also use one to turn the pool light on and off, as it was originally hardwired. You could also use it to control heated floors, a bathroom fan, or anything like that.
Any Chinese LED strip that uses Magic Home over Wifi will play well with Hubitat.
It’s sometimes difficult to decide whether to install an automated switch or automated bulbs. Bulbs are more expensive but allow you to control color temperature or color. Switches allow you to turn things on and off manually. I usually do bulbs because I try to avoid touching the switches.
I finally caved and bought a bunch of google speakers for whole house audio and home automation control. I wish it was easier to play specific spotify playlists on specific groups of speakers.
To get started, I’d just buy a hub and a pack of Sengled bulbs. It’s a pretty cheap entry point, and just being able to turn lights on and off according to basic rules is a big win.
Photo is an ohia flower in Maui from a couple months ago.
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