As I approach retirement, I plan to transition from being a physician to being an artist. I spent my summers while in junior and senior high school working in a boat yard helping mechanics, painters, and wood workers. I have always enjoyed using these skills to build furniture, but it wasn't until the last few years that I branched out and started to create what I call architectural art. Visitors to the house have seen a progression of projects over the years
Home automation has gained tremendous momentum over the past few years, with mainstream businesses like Samsung, Apple, and Amazon becoming involved. Gradually, this is becoming something that can be done without a networking degree, although we are still not anywhere near plug-n-play functionality. There are many more devices that can be controlled and many more ways of controlling them. As a result, we are getting beyond the gee-whiz demonstration stuff that is neat but not really useful like being able to turn a light off by a voice command.
How are commands sent? This part gets confusing because there are a boatload of competing protocols, Z Wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth, Thread, Weave etc. As time goes on some winners will emerge and we will also see devices that can manage multiple protocols. Right now I am primarily using Z-Wave devices.
What sends the commands? Controllers, aka Hubs, send commands. These include Smartphones, pads, computers, and proprietary boxes such as Smarthings, Wink, HomeSeer, Amazon Echo, and Vera.
Why Bother? This used to be the big question because there wasn't that much useful stuff you could do. Now there are single functions that are useful, such as locking a door, and we can now link functions in very elaborate ways.
Digital door locks allow secure keyless entry. This is extremely useful for both rental and non-rental properties. I can open the door from my cell phone to let repair people in and I can create codes that allow entry at certain times, all the time, or just a single time. I can tell if somebody tried to get in but failed. This is so much better than a shared key. The systems vary greatly in the ability to to enter new users and to enter schedules. At Mystic, I can enter a user and designate the exact minute their code will become active and an exact time it will expire. If the lock malfunctions, has a low battery, or experiences an incorrect code, I get a text. There are many locks on the market including Yale, Kwikset, Schlage, and August. The biggest issue right now is how they are controlled and programmed. I am currently using Vera as a controller. It is a box with a dedicated computer and internet connectivity that costs about $100. So far it has been very reliable, but as is the case with many of these things, getting it all set up and running can be a little challenging if you are not familiar with wireless networks at home. For this setup you need a Yale real Living lock, Vera, and a network the Vera can plug into with an ethernet cord.
Light control. Light switches can be replaced with switches that are Zwave controlled. This means that you can operate the switch normally or can do it from the controller. The switch sends the controller information so that the controller knows if the light is on or off. Each switch costs about $35. When are these useful? Suppose you have limited mobility and can't easily reach a switch? What if you hate walking downstairs to turn off lights at night or if you don't like walking into a dark house? Lights can be controlled from anywhere with a remote, key Fob, wall switch, or voice command.
Thermostats. There are a number of internet controlled thermostats. I am currently using Nest, but Ecobee and Honeywell are also good. These cost around $200 but provide an easy way to control energy usage without compromising comfort. I manage the Nest thermostats with my cell phone and I get a monthly report showing energy usage, weather conditions and a comparison to other users in the area.
Flood detection can be done with simple floor monitors that detect water from a storm, blocked drain, or broken plumbing. If water is detected, I get a text.
Temperature, humidity, motion and light level can all be done with a single detector. If there is motion, at a place or time that is not expected, or the temperature is too high or low, a text can be sent
Garage door status is monitored, so I don't have to check to see if I closed the door. If I forgot, I can close it from my cell phone.
Video monitoring has lots of options now. I am currently using software designed for the Mac called Security Spy that is really easy to use yet quite powerful. I have been very happy with Hikvision cameras; note that the ones on Amazon are not from authorized dealers and can be more difficult to program. The most reliable connection to webcams is with a ethernet cable instead of wireless. A key point is supplying power since you may not have an outlet near the place you want the camera. Some of these cameras can be powered from the same ethernet cable that connects them to the network. This feature is called POE or power over ethernet. Basic ethernet switches can be purchased that will supply the power and a port to plug in the ethernet cable. I use this system on all my cameras.
Scenes are groups of commands. For example if I am going to cook I need the main overhead lights on, task lights on, island lights on, some music, and if its hot, I want the ceiling fan on. I can set all these things to happen by programming a scene called something like "Lets Cook." I can activate that scene with a command from iPhone, wall switch, keypad, or voice. I can also make a command called "turn Kitchen off" that will shut everything off, or "Serving Dinner" that will dim or turn off some of the lights. Imagine how nice it would be to push a button or say "Alexa turn the house off" and lights go off, doors lock, garage door closes, and the security system is armed. What if a noise wakes you up at night and you can turn inside and outside lights on with a command that also checks to see if there has been any movement in the house.
There are many controllers available, each with their own programming abilities. Many are 1st or 2nd generation and have some growing pains. Some use a very simple box in the house that depends on an internet connection to be able to function. Smarthings from Samsung is like this. The problem is that if the internet goes down, your system goes down. Other systems like, Vera, use a proprietary computer in a box. This system benefits from not doing anything but home automation and is somewhat immune to the crashes that full featured computers like PCs and Macs can experience. I am using a system designed for Mac computers, that can be run on any computer that stays on. I use a mac-mini, but an old laptop can also work well. This system is called Indigo and has been around for quite awhile. There is a bit of a learning curve but it isn't that difficult. Its strength is that you can do all the things I mentioned above without knowing any programming at all. All of the platforms have active users forums with experienced users that can help newbies get their systems working. This is especially true with Indigo