Home Automation is happening. There’s no doubt about it. As a kid, I remember watching The Jetsons and Disney’s Smart House, and dreaming of the day when I too could have a house that anticipated my every move.
Recently, I racked up a ton of Amazon.com gift cards through a great referral program by Zenpayroll, my payroll provider. And, rather than do the responsible thing and use those gift cards for diapers and groceries for the next year, I decided to embrace my inner Phil Dunphy and nerd out over wireless lightbulbs and smart home hubs.
Here’s what worked, what didn’t, and where my home stands for the 2015 home automation roundup.
Every few days, I see a new web-connected device. There are lightbulbs, thermostats, irrigation systems, propane tank gauges, shades, garage door openers, coffee makers, outlets, alarm systems, motion sensors, video cameras… the possibilities are really endless. Technology that seemed cutting edge in 2013 is now commonplace in 2015, and small teams are posting projects on Kickstarter every week that promise to automate some portion of your life or another.
The boom in web connected products is like the rush of mobile apps just a few years ago. But, with so many options, and relatively high price points, what should you invest in today?
Since they were released in 2013, I’ve been eyeing the Philips Hue LED Lightbulbs. They’re pricey, no doubt, at $60 a piece or $199 for a starter kit of 3 + the required hub. So pricey, that they’ve caused hours of heated debate with my wife about “why we could possibly need $60 light bulbs that change colors.”
“Why not?” I ask. But still, the frivolous nature kept me from making the purchase until I had gift cards burning a hole in my pocket.
Now, I admit these shouldn’t be the foundation of your smart house, but in 2015, every smart-house device is a luxury, so why not start here?
The Hue product line embodies the product eco-system of the day. These products offer functionality beyond their traditional counterparts, they connect to our smartphones via our home wifi network, and they’re expensive toys for grown ups. But, these mass-market pioneers in the space are just a hint of what’s to come.
In total, here’s what I opted to purchase as of 2015:
Last year, Nest was acquired by Google for the success of their revolutionary “smart” thermostat. The Nest Thermostat does everything that a standard programmable thermostat does – like setting daily schedules – but you can control it from your smart phone. There have been plenty of times that I’ve adjusted my home’s temperature from across the country to save energy, so I’d like to think this little thing is helping me save some money.
Nest also learns your behavior (though the auto-away setting has been hit or miss for me). After a few weeks, it will set a schedule based on when it thinks you’re home, and what temperature it thinks you like.
When I first moved into my home, I spent four days without air conditioning after blowing a circuit trying to install a Honeywell thermostat. When I finally caved and purchased the Nest, I was up and running in minutes.
My wife likes it too – it’s kind of nice to change the temperature from bed or on the couch.
After almost a year with the thermostat, we decided to upgrade to Nest’s smoke alarm too. A smokey incident in our kitchen that went undetected was enough for us to make the $99 purchase, especially with a new baby.
Though I don’t have the same infatuation with the Protect as I do with the Thermostat, it’s nice to know that we’re covered. Nest Protect connects to the Nest Thermostat to improve awareness of when you’re home.
As I mentioned earlier, Philips Hue lightbulbs and the “Friends of Hue” line adds a little color to your home. I opted for the Bloom, a small floodlight that throws a decent amount of ambient light in any direction.
The starter kit came with 2 Blooms and 1 Hub for $179.99. Currently, I have one behind my iMac on my desk, and one next to my bed. The colored lights can help set any mood you’d like. At night, I change the lights to a subtle orange to make the atmosphere more relaxing, and in the morning, I wake up to a mock sunrise color. We haven’t thrown any epic parties just yet, but I’ve never been so excited about uplighting.
Hue also lets you create settings based on photos that you’ve taken, which is a fun feature but would require more lights in a single room to really feel the impact.
Right now, Hue is a fun addition to the home, but not something I would put in every light socket.
GE Link Lightbulbs
Unlike the Hue lights, GE lights only cost $15 each. These lights only come in a soft white, but like Hue, they are fully dimmable and controllable.
GE Link bulbs and Hue lights are directly connected to wifi, which means you must leave them plugged in or turned on in order to control them from your phone. Bulbs like this don’t seem like a great solution for every room, since turning your lights on and off with your phone is much less convenient than using a switch. But, they are great for the lights that you don’t often switch on or off.
I added GE Link bulbs in a few places – the backyard, stairways, front door, and lamps behind the couch. All of these areas are places that I’d like to turn on automatically at night, so GE Link bulbs were the perfect choice.
These bulbs have a great feel to them. The packaging and weight, plus the 30 second installation made me purchase another 6 shortly after my initial purchase.
The only downside that I’ve noticed is that they can occasionally miss timed events, leaving a light on beyond when you expect it to turn off.
Lutron Caseta Switches with Pico Remotes
Lutron offers a suite of in-wall and plug-in switches that control the power to the lights rather than the lights themselves. I purchased two of these systems: one switch for our master bedroom, and one plug-in device for the string lights on our patio.
The in-wall switch was significantly harder to install than the lightbulbs, since it required actual electrical work, but the instructions were clear and I figured it out in about 10 minutes. My favorite part about these systems? The physical remote control.
Call my lazy, but it’s nice to have a button on the wall next to my bed for dimming or turning off the lights. Maybe I’m only saving a few steps, but it feels like living in a luxurious hotel.
When I moved into my house, I also purchased an alarm system that runs on alarm.com. The alarm.com app is nice, allowing me to arm and disarm my system from anywhere in the world, and track activity throughout my house with motion sensors.
This technology feels a little dated though, and I’d like to see it more integrated with the other apps that I’m using today. A friend of mine is using Alarm.com with his wireless deadbolts to lock and unlock his doors remotely, which is a nice feature that I may invest in soon.
While some devices are self-sufficient and connect directly to your wifi network, like the Nest Thermostat, really taking advantage of the home automation capabilities require some type of hub. I looked into several of them, and literally spent hours pacing around Home Depot and perusing Amazon reviews trying to make the right decision.
The most popular are SmartThings, Wink, Staples Connect, Revolv, and the Lutron Smart Bridge.
The hub you select depends greatly on the products that you want to support, so I picked my hub only after deciding which devices I’d be purchasing. They range in cost from $50-$300, and vary in features. Most include geo-fencing, which allow you to trigger certain actions when you arrive or leave home (more on that later). Some must be tethered directly to your wireless router, and others are wireless gateways to your other devices.
I was looking for a hub that had the most possible compatibility at the lowest price point, and I opted for the Wink. Wink, by Quirky (a great website for participating in the creation of innovative products), works with dozens of manufacturers and sports a nicely designed, simple app, which I love. The app is a free download and includes video tutorials for setting up all of the supported devices.
As of the time of this post, the Apple Watch has yet to be released, Apple’s HomeKit is still in developer testing, and the Amazon Echo is only available for pre-order. But, these devices are an indication that the hubs of the future will respond not only to your location, but to your voice.
Today, Siri on iPhone will activate when plugged into the wall with a simple “Hey Siri”, and Google’s voice activation turns on with “Ok Google”.
I’m sure 2016 will bring more updates in this area.
Today, location tracking on our phones can narrow our location down to a small enough radius to activate certain devices upon arriving home or to another location. But soon, personal beacons will be sensitive enough to know to turn on lights as we walk down the hallway, or open our email as we sit down for coffee in our favorite chair.
Triggers and Automation
The best part about having web connected devices is the ability to connect them to each other, or trigger activities based on time of day and other actions.
First, I used the Wink app to set a basic schedule for when my lights should turn on and off. I have settings based on the actual sunset and sunrise times in my zip code, so outdoor lights and night lights turn on and off automatically. Then, I set some default actions, such as a button for “movie time” that dims the lights in my family room to a preset level.
If you want to get really crazy, try using IFTTT.com (if this then that) to create thousands of possible triggers. For instance, I have the Hue light behind my desk flash green when I make a new credit card sale, and pink when my wife texts me or emails me.
I’m just getting started with home automation, but so far it’s been nothing but fun.
What Are Your Favorite Home Automation Products of 2015?