We bought our house 7 years ago based on our love of the style, location and layout. Modern conveniences, fit and finish were not on the list. But over time, we’ve been slowly resurrecting the original beauty and charm of our 1910 Foursquare.
Years ago, when I was renovating the dining room and adding back the wood paneling and built-ins that had been removed in the 1950’s, I decided that it was time to upgrade the thermostat (that happens to live in the dining room). Being a technology nerd as well as appreciating good design, I purchased what would become my first ‘smart home’ piece of technology – the second generation Nest Thermostat.
Thermostat Take 1:
It was a sexy little thermostat (I know my wife is rolling her eyes right now). The round digital display, the machined aluminum click wheel. We loved it (I’ll get to the reason around past tense in a bit). The ability to control the temperature remotely is fun and novel and great when you’re on vacation or arriving home and don’t want to show up to a house at 50 degrees. But the best feature was how it learned your behavior, and how your house responded. It intuitively learned what time my wife woke up in the morning – and conversely how long it would take to warm our house to the desired temperature so that it could start warming prior to her getting up. Perfect. And my smart home journey had begun.
The Wemo Era:
The notion of a bit of control over your house for those times when you are away was appealing. The next purchase was a Wemo Switch Smart Plug for our living room floor lamp. The thought being that I could set up a little program to turn it on for a bit in the evenings when we were away and on vacation to give the appearance we were still home. Creating a quick schedule for this in the Wemo app was easy enough and it worked as advertised.
As the boys got a bit older, I bought two Wemo Insight plugs: one for the reading light over my oldest son’s bed and another for the Christmas light strand in my youngest son’s room which serves as a very dim night light. Both turn on automatically every night and then we can remotely turn the reading light off when it’s time for Christopher to go to bed (he’d stay up all night reading if we let him).
As smart home technology has evolved, Wemo has fallen slightly out of favor, mine included. Among the complaints is that their devices don’t integrate with Apple’s Homekit. But alas, as I write this, I have the brand new Wemo Bridge enroute to my house which, for $24 (and 2 years late) will allow the Wemo controls to play nice with Apple’s ecosystem.
The Sound of Music:
Way back in the day (read 2002), I pulled the trigger on an Airport Express. It served double duty as both my wifi router and as a means to stream music through to my component stereo. Let’s just say I was an early adopter of the iTunes and iPod era and may have ripped/digitized every single CD we owned back when CD’s were still cool. Over the years, it’s wifi capabilities waned, but I still loved streaming music from either my iTunes collection (if my computer was on and connected to the external hard drive) or from my phone and eventually Pandora. But at some point, it’s connection started dropping. Don’t try to use the microwave and listen to music at the same time – total dance party killer. And I also hated my antiquated black Bose speakers sitting on the floor of my freshly revamped dining room.
So after much trepidation, I decided to buy two in wall Boston Acoustic speakers AND my first Sonos product – the Sonos Connect:Amp to power them. I also pulled the trigger on a Apple Music subscription. I was and am in love with this setup. It sounds amazing and we have music playing almost every waking hour in our house. My wife loves it. My kids love it. No buffering or dropped music. Just slick.
I loved it so much that a year ago I bought a Sonos Play:1 for each of the boys’ bedrooms upstairs. They will sometimes group them together for a dance party or keep them separate. They have both built numerous playlists that they listen to around the house. The speakers also serve double duty as their alarm clocks during the school year. As my youngest son explained: “the speaker is better because I can’t get angry at a speaker for waking me up in the morning. It’s just a speaker.” Sound logic son. And easier on me too.
In early 2017, Sonos announced that they would be adding support for Alexa and eventually Apple’s Airplay2 technology. Upon hearing this, I bought a couple Amazon Echo Dots. At the time, all I could do was ask it stupid questions or control the Wemo Lights or Nest thermostat. But in September, 2017, Sonos finally turned on the integration and we could control all of our speakers via Alexa. So nice since we aren’t always walking around with our phones.
Just recently, we bought a Sonos One for the playroom/guest suite. This killed two birds with one stone: it gave us music capabilities in that room finally, and it was able to be controlled with it’s built-in Alexa capabilities…and control the new Philips Hue lights that I had purchased. Great for our family or any guests that stay with us.
Let there be (some) lights: Part 1:
Lighting is really the next hurdle/opportunity/money pit to conquer in our house. Our house was built in 1910 and is a museum to electrical wiring: we have every iteration of advancement since gas fed light fixtures. What that means is lots of floor lamps and no neutral wires which are necessary for most smart light switches.
After much consternation, I chose to slowly switch out all light bulbs in our lamps to Philips Hue white light bulbs. I currently have 8 scattered throughout the house in four different rooms. After some initial planning and tweaking, I have set them up to be controlled by both Alexa and Apple’s Homekit in the exact same manner. I have a handful of scenes programmed that make their usage seamless. Commands such as “Alexa, turn on the living room lights,” or “Hey siri, turn on the TV room lights,” or “Alexa, dim the playroom lights,” have become fairly routine. Or we just use the Homekit app if that’s convenient.
Who’s At the Door…And Do I Have Good Wifi?
A neighbor on the next block up from me dabbles in home technology just as I do and had an interesting experience a couple years ago with a prowler on his front porch. He had recently installed a Ring Pro Video Doorbell which alerted him to the motion and he (wisely or foolishly) chased off the thief. The story subsequently made the local news and he received a discount code to hand out to friends and neighbors. This convinced me to pull the trigger and install the same model.
The doorbell is incredibly easy to install and setup. And at $30 a year, the online cloud storage is by far the cheapest out there for any comparable device. We love the added bit of security, especially when we know packages are being delivered. Recently, I have turned on a IFTTT applet where if my doorbell detects motion after 10pm, it will turn on my living room Hue lights as a deterrent.
As much as I love the doorbell, I was having a spotty wireless connection outside on the front porch which was posing some problems: namely, I would receive notifications of motion but I couldn’t connect quickly to view the camera in real time or talk back to whomever was on the porch.
After much research, I decided to upgrade my wireless router to Google’s WiFi Mesh router. Not only was I getting areas of the house that were nearly dead zones, but as I was adding more and more connected devices, I was noticing a lag. I opted for three wireless points spread around the house. Through Comcast/Xfinity, I pay for 150mbps download speed and I get at least that at every single point in the house. I have no trouble streaming 4k content via Netflix on the downstairs TV while watching ESPN on my Apple TV upstairs. And of course, I can check the doorbell at any time as well.
The Rise of Homekit and Nest vs. Ecobee:
As more and more devices have been added, it is easy for the daily operation of the house and all the technology to become cumbersome. And that’s the antithesis of my intention. A smart home is supposed to be smart. And intuitive. Ideally, I don’t need to consciously “operate” my house – it just works. The true test is when you have guests over – can they function in your house without an operating manual.
As of right now, the answer is ‘kinda.’ But it’s progressing. I developed a couple rules or principals that must guide my smart home going forward:
- When possible, I want everything to interface with both Alexa and Apple’s Homekit
- Normal operation of the house should be possible with 30 seconds of information
A good test of that? When the grandparents are babysitting the kids at the house when my wife and I go out on a date night. Can they turn the necessary lights on at the right time? Can they turn them off? Can they listen to music they enjoy in the room they want? Can the entire experience be unremarkable? If so, then I have succeeded.
Just in the last few weeks, I finally pulled the trigger on replacing my Nest Thermostat with a new Ecobee4. The Ecobee thermostats all integrate with Apple’s Homekit where Nest does not. The Ecobee4 also has built-in Alexa which helps with my goal of having two distinct integrations that work almost identically. And it also comes with an additional room sensor that tracks temperature and motion to enable more specific temperature settings given where activity is in the house. It also acts as an added sensor to drive other smart home automations.
For example, when my wife wakes up between 5 and 6am each morning, she exits our bedroom and walks by the upstairs Ecobee sensor. This triggers the living room lights and TV room lights downstairs to both turn on (dimmed to 50%) as she prefers to use the downstairs shower.
Lighting Part 2 and the Glue To Hold It All Together:
We have a lot of floor lamps by virtue of living in an old house and these have all been upgraded to Philips Hue. But there are two problems:
- Lots of lighting in our house is controlled by light switches
- It’s not intuitive how to control the Hue Lightbulbs
To the first point, I need to upgrade the switches to “smart switches.” But to which smart switches? Let’s zoom out again on how a smart home should function.
- It should be easy
If I walk into a room, the lights should just turn on. If they don’t, I should intuitively know where the “light switch” is located. If I feel inclined to use voice control or a smart phone to control the lighting, it should be obvious how to do that. Knowing this, each room should have a:
- Motion sensor
- Physical switches
- Vocal controls
What type of technology and devices do most rooms have?
- Light switches
- Smoke detectors
Is there an opportunity to combine devices. Worst case scenario, each room would have a stand alone motion sensor, a Lutron Caseta light switch, a smoke detector and a Sonos One speaker with built-in Alexa. But perhaps we can combine some of these functions into one device? Ecobee has announced an upcoming light switch with built-in Alexa and motion sensors that is Homekit enabled, but it will need a darn neutral wire. I’ve seen a few Plum Lightpads installed, but I question the scale of the company and if they will in fact get around to Homekit or if they will get ran over by some of the bigger players.
Ironically, the 2018 CES Show just happened in Las Vegas where plenty of smart home devices were unveiled. For all the new technology, I think the next step is for installing Lutron Caseta switches and their corresponding Pico Remotes throughout the house. Seeing as we don’t have any neutral wires in our house, these are really the only switches available. Luckily, they also work with Alexa and Homekit. A side benefit of this system are their remotes. Instead of having to cut in and run additional wires for better placed switches, we can simple mount a remote to the wall and nobody will know the wiser. With the creation of scenes and programs, this will help automate quite a bit of the house.
Down the Road
We still need to figure out how to intuitively control the Hue lightbulbs and I’d like to have a switch in each room for this. Philips makes a remote that serves as a wall mounted switch but it drives me crazy that it looks so different than a normal switch. I’ve toyed with the idea of setting up a IFTTT program that triggers the Hue Lights if one of the Lutron switches is turned on…but that’s a messy workaround. Still unsure of what to do here.
I also need to replace our smoke detectors and I would like it if they were part of our smart home. Ideally, they would double as motion sensors to trigger other actions. As of right now, I’m not sure if that functionality exists. First Alert unveiled their newest smart home smoke detector at CES, but for $250, I’m not sure it’s worth it. I don’t really need a mediocre speaker in the ceiling that is separate from Sonos and that’s a really expensive Echo Dot. But if they could trigger daily lighting actions then I might be sold.
The last area to consider would likely be locks. But this is one of those areas where I think I will slowplay it. I’d prefer for the aesthetics to be refined as well as the security and integrations. And it needs to work 100% of the time – something that as much as I like my setup, is not currently doable.
I’m curious what you think of the setup and logic. There is quite a bit of home automation technology, platforms and integrations that I haven’t even touched on.