Tips and Tricks for Smart Home Nerdvana

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a great little buzz word for Internet-controlled home automation equipment. Sensors and chips to control electronics have gotten so small and cheap that they can now be put into most electronics around the house. And apps on phones and tablets have gotten so smart that they can now sense those devices without special hardware. This convergence has led to more options for home automation than ever before.

I am automating my third home. I’m not entirely sure if this makes me insane or not, but I can’t help but think about how much the home automation industry as a whole has changed since the first few years of this century. The first time I dealt with home automation, the focus was on home entertainment systems and walkway lights. The systems were terribly complex and took forever to get the basics setup. There are way more options today, but home entertainment and lights are still the two most common items I see automated, with a much larger emphasis put on HVAC these days than originally.

Along the path of insanity that has led to me begging HAL to please, please just turn the bathroom light off upstairs so I don’t have to walk up there and do it myself, I’ve learned a few tips or tricks that might just help others looking to automate a home or office. If you’re thinking of getting started with home automation, new to automation, or in the midst of upgrading a system, here are ___ tips that should help you along the path to home automation enlightenment:

  1. You can probably do this yourself. Yup. There are elements of setting up home automation doodads that might be a bit complicated, but if you do it right, the complication will be in logistics, not technology. For example, you can choose to screw in a lightbulb and be able to control that device. Or you can choose to replace a light switch with a dimmer that you can control. Replacing a dimmer is a bit more of a challenge to those who don’t know their way a traveler or a circuit breaker. You can also choose to replace a door lock or you can choose to just install a device onto an existing lock without touching a screwdriver. You can also choose to install a simple, do-it-yourself solution, such as a Wink, or you can go much more professional-grade and use a Crestron or Control4 type of solution. Either way, these days there are so many options; don’t be intimidated!
  2. The biggest money saver for many is likely to be a smart thermostat. Controlling lights with an app is awesome. But for most, especially in areas where the temperature can get extra cold or extra hot, you can actually save a pretty big chunk of change by simply replacing a thermostat. I went from spending almost500 per month when I first moved to Minnesota from Los Angeles, to spending less than200. That’s right, about a two week positive return on that investment, that continues paying itself off, month after month. My first automated thermostat was a generic Z-wave. These days, I use the Nest, as I like how it integrates with dozens of cloud services.
  3. There are so many thermostats in homes. If you have an older analog thermostat, make sure your thermostat has a power cable before you install a smart thermostat. Otherwise you might go through a pair of AA batteries every other hour. You can always pull a new wire through the wall by tying it to the old wire. But fishing wires through walls for the first time can be intimidating. Especially when there are weird twists and turns that can knock the tied wire off. If you need to call someone for this kind of task, call an electrician. But chances are you won’t have to, except in older houses.
  4. Installing smart light switches is usually better than installing smart light bulbs. The most notable reason for this is that if you install a smart light bulb (e.g. Philips Hue, LIFX, Ilumi, etc) then the light switch needs to be on for the bulb to work. If there’s no power flowing to a bulb, the bulb cannot be turned on. Having said this, I’ve had situations where various smart switches and dimmers won’t power a light fixture or work with older wiring in my homes. In these cases, it’s much less expensive to replace a light bulb than to buy a new fixture, new dimmer, and pull new wiring. But if you use bulbs instead of switches, just make sure to tell your company you have to turn the switch off and on again if they don’t use the app or voice control. Saves for getting woken up in the middle of the night by frightened parents who think your house has been possessed (it has, just by Alexa).
  5. IFTTT is your friend. Before you buy a system, check that it’s compatible with the site IFTTT. IFTTT (short for If This, Then That) links together a number of different cloud systems. You can use IFTTT to run workflows on files when they’re dropped into a folder on Box, and other businessy tasks. Or you can trigger workflows on home automation systems that aren’t supported by one another. Harmony, Alexa, Belkin, Nest, Honeywell, Hunter Douglas, Lightwave, Withings, D-Link, Philips, GE, HomeSeer, Lutron, and even BMW support IFTTT workflows. You can link all these things together to push the limits of your home beyond the boundaries of what the imagination of the vendors of the devices.

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