How to Get Started with Home Automation – Part 1: Planning

posted in: Getting started, How To | 0

Your house is likely the most expensive thing you own.  It’s your shelter, your security and the place you keep all your stuff.  But in the end, it’s just a big dumb box sitting on a piece of ground, left outside to weather the elements.  Some would argue that it takes nothing but love to turn a house into a home, but it takes technology to turn a home into a smart home.

This multi part guide will help you get started with home automation and turn that big dumb box into a smoothly operating machine.  It will help you navigate the expensive and confusing waters of home automation.  In the end you should have a clear picture of how to get started automating your home.

 

Getting Started with Home Automation

Step 1: Make your wishlist

Before you worry about budget, standards, brands, wiring or wifi, I suggest you start your smart home journey with a pencil and paper.  First, you should write down everything you want to automate or monitor.  Don’t worry if it is outlandish or sounds impossible, this is your wishlist, and you might be surprised at what is possible when you start fleshing out your ideas.  We will work on costs and priorities at a later date.

Here are some suggestions from my own wishlist to get you started:

  1. Be able to monitor and control house temperature from my phone
  2. Control the exterior shed lights from the house without running new wiring
  3. Turn on the pool light from dusk to 10 PM
  4. Turn on all exterior lights from dusk to dawn without having to reschedule for changing daylight hours
  5. Alert me of water in the basement
  6. Be able to open and close the garage from anywhere, alert me if garage doors are open
  7. Control everything in the house with voice commands
  8. When I wake up, open the downstairs blinds, start the coffee, set the house temperature to 70 degrees, play soft music in the kitchen and turn the lights on when I enter the room if it is still dark.

So far I have accomplished all but number eight, which I know is possible.  Don’t limit yourself.  If you want a house that truly runs itself, write it all down.  Some of your goals will be accomplished with a single device or application.  Some will require planning.  Once you have everything written down you should move on to the next step.

Step 2: Prioritizing

I know these first couple of suggestions are boring, and I’m sure you already have a plan that involves turning your house into the Starship Enterprise, but building a smart home is a costly venture.  Having goals and a plan will save you time, money and effort in the long run.

When I decided to start automating my home, I didn’t plan anything and wound up with three different thermostats from three different companies, and thus three different apps to control my heat.  It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was a pain in the ass to load a different app to check the temperature on each of three floors.

You should have created a list of everything you want to automate or monitor in the previous step.  Now, you’ll prioritize that list in order of importance to you.  For example, saving money on my heating costs was my priority, followed by home security and convenience, and then the fun stuff came last.  To stick with my example, above, my prioritized list looked like this:

  1. Be able to monitor and control the house temperature from my phone
  2. Be able to open and close the garage from anywhere, alert me if garage doors are open
  3. Turn on all exterior lights from dusk to dawn without having to reschedule for changing daylight hours
  4. Control the exterior shed lights from the house without running new wiring
  5. Alert me of water in the basement
  6. Turn on the pool light from dusk to 10 PM
  7. Control everything in the house with voice commands
  8. When I wake up, open the downstairs blinds, start the coffee, set the house temperature to 70 degrees, play soft music in the kitchen and turn the lights on when I enter the room if it is still dark

While it makes sense to prioritize by the importance of the task you want to complete, I suggest you also keep your budget in mind here.  In my example above, monitoring and controlling the temperature on three floors was my priority, and one that I initially accomplished for less than $200 (more on this later).

Comparatively, my second highest priority was automating my garage doors, which had no openers when I moved in.  That was an $800 project which required professional installation of openers, a MyQ Internet Gateway, and some configuration on my end.

My fourth priority, controlling my shed lights from the house, cost a whopping $34 and took 15 minutes to set up.  The long and short of it is that while something may be a higher priority to complete, you may have to bump it down the list until you can afford it.

As you create your list and set your priorities, you will probably already have some devices in mind.  I knew from the start that I was going to complete my shed and pool projects with WeMo Light Switches, but I learned the hard way that I should have planned better before I bought the switches.  Which is why step three is…

Step 3: Building Your Foundation

You have a prioritized list, you know exactly what you want to accomplish, you might even know how you want to do it, but first it’s time to build your foundation.

No matter what home automation products you decide to use, if you want to be able to control and monitor your home from anywhere, you’re going to need a quality wireless router.  This will be different depending on the size of your home and property, and how far the devices will be from the router.  As both a professional network administrator and a home automation enthusiast, I urge you to get the best router you can afford on the most up to date wifi standard.  At the time of this post the latest standard is 802.11AC.

In my shed example, I thought I had this covered and bought the WeMo switches, only to find that my D-Link Wireless N300 router could barely cover the interior of my house, let alone get signal across my yard.  After doing a ton of research I decided to replace it with an Asus RT-AC68U, which is in my opinion the best wireless router in the price range right now.  Truth be told, I actually got an AC68W, which is the exact same router as the AC68U, but white, because at the time it was selling for $20 cheaper.

While my former wireless N router was only able to cover the interior of my 2600 sq ft house with a little signal outside, the much more powerful AC68U(W) delivers a strong signal a couple hundred feed outside my house, over my pool to my shed/pool bar where I installed the WeMo switches.

The moral here is to plan ahead before you start purchasing anything.  If you are looking to get started with home automation, you should first make sure you have a solid home network with enough wifi coverage to reach all of your devices.  I can’t stress this enough.  If you read enough product reviews about wifi smart home devices, you will find that a majority of the people complaining about spotty connection to devices can’t even tell you what kind of router they own.

Your router is the heart of your entire operation.  Using the basic router that the cable company provided you or the cheapest router you could find and then installing hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars worth of connected devices is akin to buying a Ferrari with no tires.  Don’t. Skimp. On. Your. Router.

If you want to take things a step further here, you may want to consider whether you will need a hub at this stage.  A hub allows devices using different home automation standards to communicate with one another, allowing for better interaction between your devices and a single app to control them.  I’m partial to the Wink Hub, which works with ZigBee, Z-wave, Bluetooth, WiFi and Lutron ClearConnect.  It works with devices including Nest, Amazon Echo, Bali Blinds, Lutron, Rheem, Rachio, Honeywell, Schlage, Chamberlain, Quirky, GE and Hue, and they are always adding support for more.

You may want to forego purchasing a hub at first, or you may not need one at all, but as you start purchasing devices for your smart home you will want to keep in mind which devices can talk to which, and what hub may be necessary to make that happen.

Step 4: Selecting your devices

It’s finally time to have some fun and spend some money!  Hopefully by now you’ve decided what you want to automate or monitor, prioritized your tasks and made sure your home network is up to the task.  Now you should figure out which smart home devices to use in your home.

There are a lot of factors that play into selecting your products.  For instance, when you think of smart thermostats, you probably think of Nest and Honeywell.  But neither of these currently work with Apple HomeKit.  If you’re an Apple fanatic and plan to go full on HomeKit as it rolls out, you should be looking at the Ecocbee3 right now.

Thankfully many smart home devices will work across platforms, or can be made to do so with a hub or IFTTT.  The best advice I can give is to decide which device is most important for you to have, go to the manufacturer’s website and see what will work with it.  Some devices may not seem like they will work together.  For instance Amazon Echo doesn’t work with Nest thermostats out of the box, but with a Wink hub or IFTTT you can easily start controlling your thermostat with Alexa commands.

There may be some applications where you don’t need to worry about what works with what at all.  I automated the lights in my upstairs hallway with a Lutron Maestro dimmer with motion sensor.  In this case, I knew I would never care to control these lights with my phone or voice commands, I simply wanted the lights that I otherwise never use, to turn on at their dimmest setting if someone walked into the hallway at night.  The same goes for any lights you want to put on simple timers, or spotlights you want to have turn on when they detect motion (you can actually make these smarter later on if you so choose).

If you really want to make things easy on yourself, you can buy a starter kit, which usually comes with a hub, some smart light bulbs and a couple of sensors.  These kits are great for getting up and running quickly.  I caution you to use discretion when buying a kit and buy from a well known, reputable company like Wink.  There are a lot of cheap home automation products out there that are basically crap.  If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

I urge you to do your research on devices before you purchase them.  Read the reviews here and on other sites, and make sure the device you have your heart set on will work with your home and your other devices.  A great example here is the Honeywell Thermostat I bought without checking my existing wiring.  Had I bothered to do my research beforehand, I would have known that the thermostat I was going to buy didn’t work without a C wire, and I would have either bought something else or purchased an AC adapter with it.

Next steps

I will be dedicating the next few posts to getting started automating specific tasks in your home.  Take a look at Getting Started with Home Automation – Part 2: Lighting for more home automation fun.

 

Part 2: Lighting >