Simple Home Automation for 2016
August 15, 2016 8:49 AM   Subscribe

The choices for home automation seem bewildering complex that seem to stretch from expensive home solutions to buying one off smart light bulbs. There has to be a sensible middle ground, right? Since it seems to matter, we are an Android household as well as owners of an Amazon Echo that I'd like to deploy as the front ends to this system.

As for what i'd like to automate, the priorities would be to swap out our old thermostat as well as put some intelligence into the switches controlling the lights in the entry way and on the porch. Mrs. mmascolino is really sold on the idea of never coming home to a dark house or one that is way too hot/cold.

There seems to be no shortage of companies in this space (Belkin WeMo, Insteon, Wink, Samsung SmartThings, etc.) of which there seems to be some inter-product compatibility but not complete compatibility.

Bonus question: Since we are in an older house a lot of the lighting in some rooms is controlled by lamps. How do people deal with automating that solution when people might just turn off the lamps manually which would ruin the automation?
posted by mmascolino to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I work in the "expensive home solutions" side of things and so far have not seen a sensible middle ground emerge. ZWave is the closest thing to a serious DIY control standard, but your options for a central controller are fairly limited (the Mi Casa Verde seems to be the most popular.)

The problem is balkanization: there are a lot of cool solutions out there, but so far there are no good open APIs and you have to rely on the manufacturer of device A having a specific partnership with the manufacturer of device B in order to get them interoperating. What you're left with is the smartphone equivalent of a coffee table covered in remote controls: everything works well within its own app, but you need to have a whole folder full of them and there's limited interoperation.

To my knowledge the best bet for truly integrated automation at the lowest cost is still Control4, but I'll be watching this thread with interest to see if there's any credible competition emerging, the topic has been heating up with a lot of froth and a lot of big promises in the last few years.

For desk and table lamps, you really just need to choose between the built-in switch and the automation system, you shouldn't use both. Ideally you'd remove the switch from the lamp, connect it to a controlled outlet, and have a keypad on the tabletop or a nearby with a button to control that light.
posted by contraption at 9:23 AM on August 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm in the SmartThings camp and can speak (write?) to porch lighting/thermostat control. I installed GE Link flood lights and used the ST Android app to configure an automatic on/off cycle (-15 minutes from sunset, off at 11pm). I debated smart switches vs. smart bulbs and went with bulbs as I didn't want to deal with wiring. A sticker on the switch tells people not to turn it off.

I've avoided interior lighting problems by not using any automatic switches on lamps.

On the temp side I'm using a Fidure A1730 which enables control without trying to bake a zillion features into the unit itself. With the SmartThings app on each phone it's possible to create a trigger that turns off the heat/AC when everyone leaves and vice-versa. It's also nice to pre-heat/cool and arrive to a comfortable house.

The ST community is vibrant and browsing their forum shows a healthy amount of user-created devices. I believe Echo has good support but haven't used it personally.
posted by llin at 9:29 AM on August 15, 2016

I don't think my answer has changed much since that thread you linked. I will say that with respect to thermostats, you may find it acceptable to just get Nests* and control them independently with the Nest app (and maybe the Echo can tie in?). Even though I have my Nests integrated with Control4, I use the Nest app when I want to actually change something. It's a nicer interface. The one nice thing that the whole-system integration gets me is that when I leave the house, I have a single button I can push to make sure all the lights and TVs are off, and it also immediately puts the Nests into "Away" mode (rather than waiting for the auto-away timeout). But that's pretty minor, and given your priorities, a Nest that's not tied in with a larger system seems like it would be fine.

* Some people swear by Ecobee instead of Nest. If you like Android you may prefer it. I personally found the interface to be pretty awful, and I favored ease of use over flexibility.
posted by primethyme at 9:48 AM on August 15, 2016

Most of the newer systems aren't really aimed at the "happy middle ground" and there is a fair amount of jockeying to be the next Internet-of-Things darling.

I started investing in home automation back when X10 was king and newcomers like Smarthome hadn't yet developed Insteon. The early generation stuff was largely awful. I ditched the old Smarthome stuff in favor of Insteon nearly a decade ago, and I have to say it has been a bit of a bumpy road. For the era where I made the switch, I have no doubt that Insteon was the right way to go, but I would recommend carefully evaluating newer options for a new deployment. The non-upgradeability of Insteon devices is particularly vexing, and has required the occasional replacement of devices. I would probably be looking at Z-Wave today.

As contraption suggests, there is a strong balkanization effect in home automation, and I would add to that warning that there are also numerous tales of abandonment out there, as companies fail or are acquired. Many of the current systems are headed towards "cloud" models that are dependent on resources that you do not own. This leads to all sorts of Darth Vader "I have altered the deal --- pray I don't alter it any further" risks. You generally want to be in control as much as possible.

As for climate control, it's very difficult to avoid coming home to a house that's way too hot or cold, because heating or cooling a house tends to be an hour-long (or even multi-hour) operation. You can't just trip a driveway motion sensor, kick on the heat, and raise the temperature of the house from 60'F to 70'F in thirty seconds. For this, you really do need a learning thermostat, preferably one that can be clued in via a remote app when you're expecting to be home unexpectedly. It has to understand the normal hours during which occupancy is expected. Fortunately, options such as the Nest are well-known for doing a good job at this, though my personal favorite is the Ecobee 3, which allows for the placement of individual occupancy sensors in each room.
posted by jgreco at 10:22 AM on August 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

We deal with the lamps, by always using our WeMo controlled outlets. To get the habit started we made the cords/switches inaccessible. It took about a week to get used to only using the WeMos.

We have been looking for a whole house automation solution for several years. We have decided to hold off and hope for a better range of solutions. For now, we are automating key items on a one-off basis.

It's not automation, but depending on where you live, a whole house fan is a good solution to quickly/cheaply deal with a too hot/too cold/too many kitchen smells house. Cheaper than other HVAC and very quick to get the job done.
posted by 26.2 at 10:37 AM on August 15, 2016

There isn't a home automation standard that works across devices that you can expect to last for more than a couple years at this point.

I had a Nest for a couple years, but discovered that a cheap thermostat does the same thing -- it keeps the house at a set temperature. The Nest forced me to think about tweaking the temperature from my cellphone. I wanted the Nest to let me think less about my house, not more.
posted by gregr at 10:42 AM on August 15, 2016

My understanding (I work in home renovation and my company has been trying to keep track of trends in this area) is that there still isn't really a great solution short of calling in an actual home automation services professional and having them do it up right. There are no real standards in the retail market, everything is proprietary and based on technologies and platforms that may or may not exist two years from now. The direct-to-consumer landscape is changing so fast at the moment that things are likely to look very different in five or ten years, and anything that you buy today is likely to be obsolete and possibly non-functional next decade.

Robust, reliable home automation remains an expensive add-on option that not many people (at least in my region and for my company's segment of the market) are willing to pay for. We don't get a lot of requests for it, and it doesn't seem to be something that people are expecting yet. That's not to say that it can't be done—there are definitely people out there (like contraption, above) who can make this happen for you in a way that will make sense and keep working for decades to come—but for the time being this stuff remains the purview of specialist tradespeople. I wouldn't recommend trying to DIY it. Check back in ten years and things may look different.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:54 AM on August 15, 2016

Can I suggest buying a nest thermostat to solve your thermostat issues and lifx/ hue for lighting.
There is very little interoperability in their API but you can use IFFT with your amazon echo to control them. IFFT has recipes that can work between these devices.

This way you dont have to commit to a "smart system" and you can build from that base.
posted by radsqd at 1:44 PM on August 15, 2016

Our solution (which works great IMO) is yes, to just buy individual smart bulbs and replace as many as is feasible/affordable. Those can be controlled by the Alexa (we say "Alexa, turn on everything" for all the lights, or you can set specific groups (bedroom, porch, etc) or set them on a timer). We also have an EcoBee (but previously a Nest) and that can also be controlled by the Alexa (to set home temperature to a specific temp, or raise/lower it). I'd suggest starting there (just buy a smart thermostat + some smart bulbs) and then add on more smart things either as you decide you want them or as more products come into the sphere.

For your bonus question, we have a lot of our bulbs in lamps also - at this point (~6 months of having them) I just know which ones are Smart and automatically don't try to turn them off, but if you do accidentally, it's no big deal. Just turn them on again manually and they'll continue to work as before (at least, for the Alexa integration - we don't use the timed aspect). This is true for both GE Link bulbs and HUE bulbs (the latter are crazy expensive but the color effects are pretty neat).
posted by jouir at 4:29 PM on August 15, 2016

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