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Our Journey Into Home Automation

A long, long time ago, Lao Tzu wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Our journey into Home Automation began in earnest with 2 burnt out light bulbs.

LED Conversion KitOur living room has 4 6-inch recessed lights in the ceiling, which were there when we bought the house. Over the years, I’ve replaced bulbs a handful of times, typically with Halogen bulbs, since they offered a compromise between the lower cost of incandescent with lower power use than those same incandescent bulbs. One evening, one bulb blew, followed by another the next day.  And so, off to Lowe’s I went, in search of new bulbs. I ended up coming home with 4 Sylvania LED conversion kits. Essentially, it’s the bottom of a light bulb with a wire hanging out that connects to the LED assembly, including a new trim ring. The whole thing slides right on up into the can, and takes the place of your old trim, leaving you with a nice, clean look.

casetaThings took a turn when I found that the old Lutron dimmer in the wall had a higher minimum load rating than it took to turn these lights on. So, suddenly, lots of flickering lights. I popped out the little tab in the bottom of the dimmer to kill the power and went back to Lowe’s, since I know there are now dimmers with smaller minimum loads, to be friendly to LEDs. While looking around, I came upon the Lutron Caseta Wireless solution. Lowe’s had a starter kit that gave me the bridge, dimmers, remotes and so forth.  Naturally, I went for the thing I could play with from my phone. Came home, installed the dimmer, setup the hub, and was rolling in about 20 minutes. I like their dimmers, as we’ve got an older house, that doesn’t always have a neutral wire in the box, so these worked out nicely.  I changed out the bulbs in my office and family room next. Over the next several months, we added 3 more dimmers and 4 of their simple on/off switches. I ended up having the buy the switches at an electrical supply shop, since those are considered “Pro” items.  Caseta all nicely integrates into Apple’s HomeKit ecosystem, so I can tell Siri to do stuff with the lights.  I was happy with my shiny new toy, and my dear wife got to humor me.

Years prior, we got a Nest thermostat. Not for their “learning” capabilities, but simply so we could do things like set it to Away when we left town, and then turn it back to its usual settings while on our journey back home. Eventually, we got some of the Nest Protect smoke/CO alarm units as well. They worked well enough, and we never bothered to do much with them, apart from occasionally be annoyed when they’d go off while cooking, though that’s not exactly a unique problem with these particular smoke alarms.  More on that stuff later..

Then the garage door opener kicked the bucket. No big shock, it was in the house when we bought it, and served us well. It sounded like a train running through one of the kids’ bedrooms when we’d use it, so it was more of a blessing than anything. In Home Depot, while selecting a new opener, another choice stood before us. For $5 or 10 more than the opener we needed, we could have roughly the same one with a box that connected it to the network, and allowed us to open, close & monitor the door from our phones.  Again, yes, please. Chamberlain MyQ works pretty well. I won’t bore you with their failed & broken promises about HomeKit compatibility being added to the existing hardware via firmware upgrades. Suffice to say, they handled that about as badly as a company can.

Then, Alexa came into our lives. We connected her to the lights. Kids forgot for the 43rd time to turn off the kitchen lights? “Alexa, turn off the kitchen lights.” She quickly became a member of the family, with kids asking her questions, and of course, our daughter requesting her to play various songs.

harmonyOne fateful afternoon, I knocked our Harmony remote off the table and it landed just right, smashing the touchscreen.  So, once more, off to the store I went, returning home with the Logitech Harmony Elite.  It’s an RF remote that has their Home Hub, with connected IR blasters. It also connects to your home’s network, and has apps, as well as tie-in’s to Alexa, Caseta, and others.  Our Harmony activities can now all be activated by asking Alexa to do it. “Alexa, turn on the Roku” – yes, please.

To date, our HomeKit use was limited to the Caseta switches & dimmers. It served us well, and we had no complaints. But we wanted a more integrated experience.  Enter Homebridge, the brainchild of Nick Farina. The goal is simple – bridge the gap between devices that don’t implement Apple’s interface to HomeKit and the HomeKit world, enabling control of devices by our other virtual assistant pal, Siri. The community has responded in a big way, having made several hundred plugins to extend Homebridge. I’ve got 2 plugins installed and working – MyQ and Nest. So, now I can see the state of our opener, as well as open & close it using Siri. Our Nest Protects show up as Smoke & CO sensors as well. What about the Nest thermostat?  Well, that’s gone off to greener pastures…

ecobee-3-sensoronstand-standingup-usI recently replaced the Nest with an ecobee3. This one is HomeKit compatible straight out of the box. The ecobee3 solves one of my chief complaints with any thermostat. Think about where the thermostat is in your house. I bet it’s somewhere like a hallway. Do you spend a lot of time in the hallway?  Of course not. You’re in the living room, kitchen, bedroom, office, hobby room, family room, or wherever. But you’re almost surely not in the hallway for any appreciable length of time. The ecobee3 offers additional sensors (the little white thing next to the thermostat above) that you can locate around the house. When designing your “Comfort Settings”, you get to decide which sensors factor into the temperature reading. So, during the day, when I’m working from home, and the only one here, only the one in my office matters. Around 2:30, the thermostat shifts to another profile that looks at other parts of the house, plus my office. The thermostat averages temperature between all the sensors you’ve specified. These sensors also now double as motion sensors that show up in HomeKit and allow you to generate alerts upon sensing motion, a sort of poor man’s (???) alarm system.

img_2957The last bit we’ve added is a few Hue bulbs and a light strip on the back of the TV in the living room, as a bias light.  The bulbs are for the kids’ rooms where they’re interested in playing with different colored lighting.  Otherwise, we’d have just done more Caseta for them.

Hopefully this inspires someone to automate something.  Go build something cool!