Living In A Smart Home Part 3:

Get Money, Buy Switches:

With big pushes from Google, Amazon, and many 3rd-party companies in the Smart Home realm we’re almost getting to the point where it’s actually useful. The purpose in this series isn’t necessarily a review or a how-to guide and you may certainly take it with a grain of salt. However, I wanted to write about the who, what, where, how and why in my home and maybe you’ll get some ideas of your own. It’s meant for the novice and the curious. It is for someone who is slightly tech-savvy and someone who isn’t tech-savvy. Feel free to use it as a “drunkenly honest” guide but remember that not everyone’s experience is the same and your applications may be different. With that being said, let’s get started with this entry!

Don’t make the same mistakes I did:

Last entry, I brushed upon your choice of Hub and +1. I recommended a hub by Samsung’s SmartThings. I just wanted to start out with a little support as to why. Receiving some criticism it can look like I’m favoring them and it’s pretty much true. I do obviously favor them cause I have them in my home. So far my experience has been generally positive. The devices I purchase for it work either out of the box or the community has written some impressive code to allow it. However, don’t take me as a professional blogger. I just do this in my spare time. I do not have the unlimited funds that CNET has. If I were totally unhappy with it, I’d change but it seems to fit the bill perfectly. Moving on from that choice I also recommended a +1, a smoke detector. Actually, I said to focus on a safety item. You’re more than welcome to purchase whatever you like. The reason I chose a smoke detector was to solve a specific problem, which was to be notified in case of a fire while my wife and I were away. As I said earlier, this blog is more of a journal-style and the things I encountered. Things I have deployed. Problems I have solved.

Dude, these aren’t problems… they’re wants.

A Reddit user stated that in the home automation there aren’t “problems”. I’ll respectfully disagree. It’s probably my mistake for not defining what I mean by problem but I implore you to take a “Problem” then “Solution” frame of mind. I’m referring to problems like in Math. (Boring, I know) “1 + 1 =” isn’t much of a problem, but it does have a solution. Part of my issue was shopping first. I knew I wanted automated lights, security sensors, automatic watering for my plants, automated sentry turrets… ya know the norm. What I should have focused on was solving problems. I would often see “Smart whatever on sale” and think, oh it just integrates into SmartThings, which simply isn’t true. There was a temptation to buy a whole bunch of switches and just change every one to be smart. (And not to mention costly.) There isn’t necessarily a need for that.

Okay, give me an example of a problem.

No problem! (I love puns) My first problem is my wife, (he said jokingly as his wife glances at him) not that she’s terrible person or anything but she’s actually the best case scenario for a good home automation setup and she keeps my grounded before I try anything extravagant. Whatever I do has to pass the “spouse” test, meaning if she can’t figure it out I am the problem. Specifically our front door was the problem. We came home late at night and our house was pitch black. She tripped over a shoe after trying to fumble to find which switch in a 4-way gang was living room light. Spoilers, it’s the one furthest from the door but try remembering that when you’re fumbling around.

Problem:

We come home late at night and it’s dark.

Solution:

Living room lights come on automatically when we enter the door.

Ah, but how to accomplish this? Well, my BIG mistake was going to buy a “Smart” lightbulb by Googling it. While this worked, it wouldn’t work with the light switch turned off. Remember my wife? Yeah, she turns it off and on to turn the light on and off. Guess what? She’s right. Home Automation and Smart devices need to feel natural. We’ve been programmed to turn lights on and off via a switch. We need to integrate our ideas with that. Hence the title of this week’s article.

Switches or bulbs?

In short, I will always recommend a smart switch over a smart bulb. There are a few exceptions though:

  1. You live in an apartment or rental and cannot make modifications.
  2. You do not feel safe or comfortable doing electrical work or do not wish to hire an electrician to do the wiring for you.
  3. You want different colored smart lights/moods.
  4. You have 3-way switches without the necessary connections.

This doesn’t cover everything of course, but those are some show stoppers when it comes to switches. (We’ll address #4 as it’s not always true.) Bulbs are great as well and I have no problems if you’d rather do bulbs just experience with people coming over is they’ll expect switches to turn on and off rooms, not apps or Alexa. There are other applications where bulbs may be a better choice, just not in any of the cases I personally have ran into.

Continuing our example, I ordered a GE-Z-wave On/Off Dimmable Paddle switch.

This was my first mistake and I lucked out. Always check your hub’s native compatibility list FIRST to ensure easy integration. I lucked out as it was supported by SmartThings, but I’ve ran into some trouble before. SmartThings is great cause chances are someone has already ran into the problem and there’s a solution but if you’re new I HIGHLY recommend checking first. When it arrived, I cut the power and took the plate off the wall.

Second mistake: BEFORE YOU ORDER: make sure you read about how they’re installed. In my case, GE’s Smart Switches REQUIRE a common-wire. (Generally white but could be any color). Once again, luckily I had that connection but I’ve got into 3-way switch installations without everything necessary being there. So once again, BEFORE YOU BUY: cut the power and verify you have all the necessary connections in both locations ESPECIALLY for 3-way switches. (I’ll write an article specifically about 3-ways since they’re very common in my home.) I wired it all up (well, I attempted to a few times and then found out what I was doing wrong) and was able to turn it on/off and finally sync it to SmartThings.

Using the Smart Lighting application on SmartThings I was able to tell the switch that anytime the front door was opened, between the hours of 5:30PM and 7:00 AM to turn on the lights. I’ll get into specific guides about this process later but in the main series I just want to address the big picture. We still had some problems based upon if the light was on already, however that came later.

Finally, I’d like to address one specific thing: It doesn’t make sense to automate everything or at least turn everything smart especially all at once. At anywhere from 30-50 dollars a switch that’s costly and you might not really see a benefit. A good example is my half-bathroom light. I COULD put a motion sensor in there and I could replace the switch to have it automatically come on when occupied then turn off. That’ll run me somewhere between $50-75$ dollars for the hardware. Or, I could just turn the light on and off when I go in like I’ve been doing for years. It sounds nice that you’ll save electricity but it’ll probably take a good long while before you see any return on that investment and most people have an instinct to hit the switch before you enter anyways. My recommendation is that you make sure that when you automate it actually makes sense. Use the problem/solution method, do research first, make a flow chart (coming later) on how that automation plays out.

Cool, but how did SmartThings know when the door was opened?

Sorry this one was a bit long but we had a lot to talk about. One thing I didn’t mention is how we got the door to be automated. While you can just buy a z-wave door sensor I went the more advanced route we’ll talk about next time: Your Smart Home Security System. Thanks for reading and see you next time!

 

 

 

 

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Living in a Smart Home Part 2:

Home Is Where the Hub Is:

With big pushes from Google, Amazon, and many 3rd-party companies in the Smart Home realm we’re almost getting to the point where it’s actually useful. The purpose in this series isn’t necessarily a review or a how-to guide and you may certainly take it with a grain of salt. However, I wanted to write about where, what, how any why in my home and maybe you’ll get some ideas of your own. It’s meant for the novice and the curious from someone who is slightly tech-savvy and someone who isn’t tech-savvy. Feel free to use it as a “drunkenly honest” guide but remember that not everyone’s experience is the same and your applications may be different. With that being said, tet’s get started with this entry!

Your Next Step: The Hub + 1:

    Last post we spoke about Alexa’s integration and why I believe she should be your first step in th smart home. Wether you agree or disagree based upon what she can do is perfectly fine. It’s very debatable on what is the “center” of your Smart Home. While we could debate on Alexa being your first purchase, the next (or first if you disagreed) purchase will be your hub.

Wait… what’s a hub? I thought I just bought some smart light bulbs and there’s an app?

     Sadly, there is an app for that. I said “sadly” because I just bought an Amazon Dot that came with a TP-Link Smart Plug. It wasn’t a bad purchase and it’s certainly compatible with Alexa (which is fine if that’s all we have) but it isn’t directly compatible with my SmartThings Hub. That’s a bummer. There is a Kasa app, (pun intended?) but having to pick up your phone, look for the app, then open it to control one switch is the bummer. The “hub” is/can be the central location of your smart home. They’re designed to run automation and provide a central interface for you to control your various devices. While Alexa can serve is a “hub” of sorts, she doesn’t excel at it and you certainly don’t want to ask her to do everything unless you have her in every room. The hub is where you’re going to do most of your heavy lifting. When you come in the front door, don’t you want your lights to automatically turn on? Isn’t that the point?

Yeah, I mean, that sounds nice.. but why the +1? There’s a lot of them and they’re all like $100 dollars!

     They are! Well, they can be. Depending on your hub and where you get it it’s about $100 dollars. Wink, Iris, and SmartThings are seemingly the front-runners and while there are other alternatives I’m not 100% sure they’re for the non-tech savvy. Heck, even I’m scared to crack open my SmartThings hub and start fiddlin’ with the engine. The +1, is the important part. Your first truly smart device sets the tempo for the other devices you’ll be looking at. Chances, are it’ll be Zigbee, Z-Wave,  or worse, a native protocol (hence the apps earlier) that you’ll have to make sure not only your hub is compatible with but also all your other purchases going forward. We’ll talk about my recommendation but this is where your preferences / budget will need to come into play. I’m not going to presume to know it all, I don’t. There’s literally hundreds of options here. My best advice though: Think about your problem/s and find solutions. Look first. Ask questions. Then decide. Try and think about the future and what you’d like to accomplish.

Okay, Ok… so what so which Hub and which +1 do I get?

     Simple… SmartThings by Samsung. This is a personal choice and my opinion to the novice/enthusiast is that you can do a LOT of things. The SmartThings hub’s basic compatibility is really expansive. Namely, the most trusted Switches (GE Z-Wave) and other integrations with an open-ended API makes it the best choice for both the layman and the advanced. You can get the SmartThings hub from MANY locations, my wife and I were first looking at it as a solution for monitoring underneath our sink with a water sensor and integration with our Ring video doorbell. (Yes, I know.. we’ll get to the Ring later.) We got the Ring for safety concerns and we decided to put off the Hub until we were ready later to buy the kit with sensors. While we got the ring, we never did get the sensor kit cause we moved and wasn’t a big deal anymore. Recall earlier how I was saying think of problems you’d like to solve? After my wife and I moved to the farm, our needs and problems changed. While one of us is home 95% of the time, the other 5% was the problem.

Sorry man, don’t really care about your problems.. what about my +1?

     When we first moved it, we had an alarm system that was disconnected. I looked into hooking it up, it was about $20 dollars a month, included security monitoring and emergency contacts for fire. While $20 dollars is worth my family’s safety, the bigger problem was hidden fees with companies charging you simply to come out. If they monitoring company receives an alert, attempt to call but no one answers? They send out the Po-Po. Was it just a false alarm? $100 bucks. Man, that blows all because my wife and I were out shopping. When we really thought about it I’m more concerned for our furry animals while we’re out. The alarm system is great if you’re home but if there’s a fire and you’re gone? Well, I wanna know immediately so I can call my neighbors. So, our first purchase was a Smart Fire-detector, which was our best and worst choice. If I had to do it over again, I would do the exact same thing and encourage people to think, “Safety First”. Safety can be a broad term. Safety for me meant text/push notifications to my cell phone in case of a fire. It meant all the lights turning on if our security sensors went off at night, giving me a few moments to arm myself, investigate, and contact the authorities if necessary. It COULD mean, if you come home late at night, the lights to automatically come on when you get home. It’s up to you, but I would venture to guess most people’s first +1 should be a safety related item. If I had to give a recommendation, I prefer my Nest Protect, but I said I said earlier it might be a mistake since it’s not directly capable of being integrated with SmartThings. If you’re going for integration, First Alert makes a Z-Wave Smoke/Carbon Dioxide detector for around $50-$60 dollars on Amazon that integrates with SmartThings.

Cool! I’m going to buy that and 5 smart switches to put around my home! Thanks!

     Okay! I’m glad you’re enthusiastic about it but hold off for my next article where we actually start getting into it and what buying too much at once is not the Smartest.. (See what I did there?) thing to do. Till next time!