Home Automation can cover a lot of ground; everything from very mundane things like sensor lights to elaborate setups and scenes with dozens of devices and sensors. In this article we quickly cover the fundamentals of home automation.
In ‘The Basics’ we will start by helping you developing an understanding of your personal comfort level for home automation projects. We will help you feel comfortable tackling many projects on your own while understanding when you might be moving beyond your comfort zone. We provide a very high level overview of the types of automation available. We then change perspective and hopefully broaden your thinking about how and where automation technology can be used.
Once your creative juices are flowing we put some structure around how to plan for a successful automation project. We suggest some basic (we think of them as common sense) rules that will help you avoid common pitfalls. We also outline some of the most common drivers for automation so that you can plan and communicate effectively about the benefits of your projects.
In the ‘Advanced Class’ we talk about how to push your boundaries regardless of whether your technical skills top out at screwing in a light bulb or building and installing custom electronics. We provide some suggestions about when and where you can look for help should you find yourself moving beyond your comfort zone.
Everyone can benefit from home automation and everyone can add automation to their lives. However, not everyone is cut out for having or implementing a complex home automation system.
The most basic home automation systems are pretty much fool proof. Even if you are all thumbs you will be able to add some automation. These basic systems are really just stand alone home automation gear which can be literally as easy to add as screwing in a lightbulb.
Graduating from the basics is also pretty easy. The best home automation gear for Do It Yourself (DIY) projects is very well engineered and documented for people without previous experience. This gear usually requires slightly more complicated installation or configuration but will be fully functional on its own. Some examples include web security cameras, weather stations, and remote controlled kitchen gadgetry. The best DIY gear also integrates and works together with other automation equipment. This cool functionality allows you to grow to a more advanced system and start to leverage what you have built to take it to the next level. After implementing two or three DIY type systems is where many people find that they have gone wrong somehow and ‘broken’ something. The good news is that this is usually easy to fix and you can often do some amazing things without going beyond the DIY level.
Advanced systems require advanced skills. The skills required are a mix of handyman (to dig into your homes utilities and systems) and technical (to configure and program the technology). This is the point where most people will need to look at their abilities and honestly judge if they are a match for what they want to achieve. In many cases you can do everything you want but you may decide you need to outsource some of the work to a qualified professional.
For advanced systems you will also benefit from patience and planning skills. There are so many permutations and integrations with advanced systems that they become an order of magnitude more complex than a DIY system. With these systems you are often blazing new ground. Although systems can be well documented to work together the manufacturer may not take into account that the system has all the components you have and how they will impact each other. Advanced systems can (rightfully) be daunting but they are also where you will start to see some of the most profound benefits and coolest functionality.
Elite systems have lots of sensors and moving parts and most involve some proprietary or custom work. Unless you are a professional and/or are willing to invest massive amounts of your time into the design and building of your system it is unlikely that you will complete a large elite system on your own. These very complex systems require a lot of work to and can require specialized knowledge to plan, install, grow and maintain effectively. The elite systems are also where the most interesting, useful and cool technology can be found.
People who are very comfortable with their DIY automation system and have a few components that interact and work together should feel ready to tackle an advanced system. Just be sure to be safe, plan carefully and seek help when you need it. If you follow the advice in the sections below we believe anyone can be a home automation guru.
Complexity tends to grow by orders of magnitude as you move through the levels. Once you have been bit by the bug and see what is possible it can be difficult to slow down and plan the addition of new features. Often the most challenging and costly piece of a system isn’t the gear you buy to get a job done it is the gear you need to re-buy because it doesn’t play nicely and work in your larger system. Technology islands are not necessarily a bad thing or always a problem but they are also often easily avoidable and a bit of research and planning can keep options open and help you avoid a lot of duplicate work.
What can be automated is limited only by your imagination. If you think about the things you do as part of your routine that take up your time or bother you for one reason or another you are beginning to identify places that you can automate. You may be tempted to jump right to “I want a robot who will make my breakfast” – a challenging feat for sure! However, if you look at the problem differently “making breakfast is boring and takes too much of my time” you can break it down and automate portions of the process to make it easier and more enjoyable. You may want to start with something easy like a plug and play coffee maker that you can trigger to start making your coffee as soon as you wake up. Then you can add sensor lights that come on automatically and provide a bright and cheery prep area to work in. You could trigger music or news to start playing automatically to keep you entertained as you work. There is no end to the ways you can make anything a bit more comfortable, enjoyable and safer if you break it down and look at the component parts of the process.
Here is a list of the usual suspects for automation. These ideas are in no way a comprehensive list but may trigger some ideas for you. Alternatively, if you have something you want to automate but aren’t sure where to start try breaking down the component parts of the task and see if any of these easily automated pieces might help.
Spoiler alert! One of the great things about home automation is the overlap there is between categories. Installing something that adds comfort and security and also makes your home more economical is one of those win, win, win scenarios we rarely encounter in regular day-to-day life but more commonly see with technology (what do you mean the new version of this laptop is smaller, lighter, has better battery life, runs faster AND is cheaper?? Inconceivable!).
- Home Comfort
- HVAC Zoning Controls
- Home Systems
- Garage Door
- Irrigation Systems
- Valve control
- Energy monitoring
- Window and Door sensors
- Motion sensors
- Water Detection
- Alexa (order pizza, arrange an uber, etc.)
- Air fresheners
- Pet feeder
- Drink dispenser (coffee, alcohol, etc.)
- Kitchen gadgets (remote controlled crockpot, fridge with a camera, etc.)
- Health gadgets (watch with heart monitor, step tracker, sleep tracker, etc.)
- Garage gadgets
- Gardening gadgets
- Paging systems
- IoT alerts (devices alerting – the flower pot that tweets when it needs water etc.)
- Video doorbell
- Monitor (TV/Projector/Displays) control
- AV equipment control
- Environmental control
- Whole home audio system
- Home Automation Control Systems
- Touch Screens
- Unifying software (IFTTT, Paragon, etc.)
The label “Home Automation” can be misleading which is why at enautomate you will find that we often shorten it to simply “automation”. The tools and techniques used to add comfort, convenience, security, or efficiency in your home can often be adapted and used in a diverse range of situations.
The way we see things is that a basic tenant of automation is that you have something to automatically sense and trigger an action and something to carry out that action. This can be as simple as a wireless sensor that rings a doorbell when someone enters a room to an array of sensors that monitor a wide range of variables and constantly shift and adjust settings and variables. We believe that anywhere you spend time you can apply the principles of automation.
Your home is often the most obvious location you think of because a)you have a lot of control over the space b) you tend to spend a lot of your time there and c) a lot of marketing is done to ensure you are thinking about it! However, beyond your home it is easy to imagine and extend that to work, hotels, holiday homes, rental accommodations, cottages, loved ones homes, outdoor spaces and basically anywhere you might find yourself.
Even further outside the box you might consider an automatic tea/coffee maker for work or installing an auto-dimming mirror in your vehicle. You can easily apply many of the same principles when you are traveling. Setting up a security camera or sensor light in a hotel room. Even right on your body for when you are out and about with a health monitor or other wearable technology.
We hope your mind has expanded a bit and you don’t just think about automation as Home Automation or as sneaky high-tech ways to turn the lights on and off and lock the doors. As you apply the principles you use to add automation to the rooms in your house to other parts of your life it can be easy to get carried away. Here are some handy rules and recommendations to help make your automation projects more successful:
- Don’t automate for automation sake (unless Rube Goldberg machines are your thing – think the opening sequence of Back to the Future at Doc Brown’s house and the elaborate machine he has built to automate feeding Einstein and making his breakfast) look at the ‘Why’ section below and see if you can fit your project into the categories.
- Keep other people in mind. Read through our post on multi-use spaces for more thoughts about this.
- Plan first then build. The first few DIY projects can be easier but they also set the direction for future systems. Even if you don’t plan to add a complex system a bit of planning can go a long way. It doesn’t need to be a detailed project plan with gantt charts and resource allocations. Consider the inputs and outputs and how you will interact with the system. Do a bit of research and see how others have done the same thing. Above all, try to think about where your automation could evolve to.
- Write it down. Similar to planning documentation can be as simple or as complex as you like. You can use mind mapping software, a whiteboard, an app on your phone or computer or just plain jot it down on a napkin. Even something simple will help you remember details, see if you missed something and be very helpful when you want the project you are working on today to interact with another in the future.
- Use one ecosystem as much as you can. Look for ecosystems that are flexible and have interfaces (API’s) that allow other systems to connect easily.
- Look for mature and strong products for the core of your system. The latest technology can be tempting. Use caution and build your automation systems around technology that will have long term support and has a diverse and robust ecosystem.
The most compelling arguments for automation systems are often security and economy. Security can range from a traditional alarm system type security to more about personal safety. For example having enough light not to trip and fall or ensuring you are alerted if CO2 levels are too high. Economy is about saving money; usually by making sure energy wasting systems are turned off when they aren’t needed.
It isn’t all about safety and saving money though. Systems can be about adding comfort or making tasks more efficient. Adding comfort can mean taking a system that manages the heating and cooling and giving it the smarts to know where you are and if that space needs to be warmer or cooler. Being more efficient can be something that automatically closes the garage door and/or turns off the lights when no one is home.
Sometimes the reasons for automation target a very specific challenge. For example using automation to compensate for disabilities or illness. In particular with the elderly where mobility or memory may be an issue technology can be a great way to augment other supports and allow greater independence. Systems range from ones that automatically help to dispense and organize pills to remote controls for lights and easy to use communication tools to stay in touch with family and loved ones.
There is no end to the opportunities for automating your life and ultimately the sheer number of options can be overwhelming or alluring. Be mindful of what you are doing and avoid the ‘climb a mountain’ mentality of seeing what the technology can do ‘just because it is there’.
We are not saying that you shouldn’t do something unless it fits perfectly in one of the categories above. We are probably the worst offenders for trying everything we can get our hands on! Ultimately automation should be fun and sometimes a project is only about having a good time. If you find a little robot that tells you jokes when it thinks you are sad and can set your lights to ‘party mode’ to get you in the mood there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Just don’t give up on automation all together if that robot randomly turns on the music and lights at 3 a.m. on Monday morning because it heard you snoring and months ago during setup you checked the innocent and fun looking check box that said “randomly start a party – yes please!”.
The advanced class will be different for everyone and is really about moving beyond your comfort zone. Most people know roughly what their limitations are and in this section we will try to encourage you to start by working within your comfort zone but plan to push beyond and do things that are daunting to you now.
Even if you are not handy at all there are easy, non-invasive projects. Probably the best way to start is to find a good test area where what you try will be used but won’t hurt anything if it doesn’t work out. We suggest that you try starting with the basics: things like lights, a weather station, etc. first then move on to thermostat and apps, then start with some more advanced kit. As you grow work on what gets you excited. If you love audio visual go with that, if you spend more time in the garage than anywhere else do something there, if you love the outdoors and gardening there are tons of automation projects you can take out to the yard, if your kids are your alpha and your omega then pick pick projects that help you spend time with them and keep them safe.
For many of you automation is old hack. You already have loads of stuff and are just looking for the next thing to add to your system. If you identify as a DIYer with a love for all things technical and automated you are in good company! Where you want to focus is around integration, unified control and generally smoothing out the experience of using the system. You may even already have a hub or hubs and probably have a dozen different ways you can control every IoT connected device in your home. For you the next step to an advanced system will probably involve a lot of planning, some pruning and targeted focus on touch points and user interactions.
If you have a clean home automation system with a homogeneous management system that integrates everything and has easy to use, intuitive and reliable controls congratulations you are what we like to call a 2%er. You are among the elite of home automation owners and either you have been doing this forever and too complex just isn’t in your vocabulary or you are a prodigy savant who graduated from MIT with multiple degrees in electronics (if so, why are you reading this anyway?!?). If this is the case you are probably looking to really kit out your life with some pure custom built or home brewed technology. The next steps for you are to look at security and maintenance and to plan out how you will integrate and upgrade your system to do the next great thing.
We all face real challenges and only have so much time in our lives. Automation is supposed to help make that time more enjoyable and focused on the people and things we love. If you love tinkering you will do well with automation. If you get frustrated easily or live with others who won’t tolerate glitches you may want to work with a professional to get the basics right and in place. There are more and more companies out there who do this type of thing for a living and can help corral the chaos of too many DIY projects and set you up on a path to grow. There is no shame in asking for help if you need it.
Some of the places you can look for help if you want to do it yourself include: user Groups & Communities like the one here on enautomate, meet-up groups you can find on community boards and through social media (if you can’t find one for your area try starting one you may be surprised at how popular they are!), college/technical courses (there may be evening and weekend courses on home automation classes or the classes may be called something less obvious like basics of electrical wiring etc.), visit local electronics stores or stores that sell home automation equipment (staff will often be very helpful sharing their own experience and connecting you with other resources for the products they sell).
For more advanced support that will usually cost you something but may end up saving you more in the long run you can look for dedicated home automation professionals. There are increasingly more shops that focus on automation first but if not in your area look for professionals that work in related industries like alarm system installations, building and general contractors or information technology contractors. Electricians are another good group to connect with and can often help out or point you in the right direction if you ask. Home entertainment and hardware stores may run or contract installation services that they can recommend or organize for you.
We hope you are excited to get started with an automation project. If you are looking for more inspiration check out our other articles. If you haven’t already, check out our “Start Here” page to get an idea of what is available via enautomate.
If you are just getting started we suggest you read a few more of our Big Picture articles so that you understand the framework you will be working in. You can also look at our recommendations in the Stuff We Love section to see what we use.