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A journey in Home Automation

A while ago, after dabbling into automating some of my chores and looking into the possibilities, I stumbled into the domain of home automation. It grew on me quickly and soon I found myself sourcing parts in different countries and splicing them together in various ways as means to various ends. And it was fun, too! I then decided to put all my ideas into one place, to document the process and make a sort of work log of it, so I could recover from failure quickly. Remember that setting you just ‘’had to’’ get right in order for your system to work just right, that you looked for online for over two hours? Well, you sure won’t in a couple of months. Better write it down somewhere! Or so the reasoning went.

However, between deciding to do something and actually doing it there is sometimes that period of time that goes by when you have to do other things, not necessarily more important but more urgent. And so my ideas went on hold. I read, I experimented and I failed, then I read again and tried again and in the end I decided I could do more than just a worklog, and actually write some articles about the whole shebang. Sure, I’m no expert, but I believe those who are keep the knowledge to themselves because this business is quite lucrative. I do have some experience with microcontrollers though, and with setting up various control systems, as well as a background in telecommunications and software programming, and this is what I’d be doing if I could do whatever I wanted, so why not take a crack at it? So the idea stuck and I decided to write and post the articles on devtome so people could actually see them.

So without further ado, here is an introduction and an outline of Home Automation for the not-necessarily-technically-inclined. Chapter 2 deals with the technical overview and cloud security issues, as well as an overview of current technology and how it fits into the theoretical schema. Chapter 3 compares a couple of simple, off the shelf light control systems while Chapter 4 takes steps further and designs a simple home automation system from parts.

As day jobs are notorious in gobbling up time, though, and the realm of home automation is but a hobby to the author, the following information will arrive in sets which will be linked below as they are written. Bookmarking this page and checking back often is highly recommended!

Table of contents:

Chapter 1 - Overview, state of things and possibilities

Chapter 2 - Basic theory, cloud security and examples

Chapter 3 - A (theoretical) home automation system

Chapter 4 - A simple home automation system

Chapter 5 - A practical example using Tasker

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Chapter 3 - Building your first (theoretical) Home Automation System

This is the third chapter of the Home Automation series of articles on Devtome. If you are new to the Home Automation scene, it is highly recommended you visit the first two for an overview of the technology and terms, and for a theory and security discussion of basic home automation systems.

After getting that out of the way, let’s get involved with some actual planning of not one, but three home automation systems, ranging from simple and quick to complex. Also, this is just an example of the theory and planning for these systems, as the physical implementation, with bill of materials and software or source code will be provided in the fourth chapter of the series. Only instruments and technology available today will be used, ready to build from the start. The last part of this series will take into consideration technology that is currently in development and ways it could be integrated into the current setup when (or if) it becomes available.

As was stated before, the total price usually dictates what can be done with the system, and how smart it really is. So, at first, let’s build a requirements list and see what today’s available tech can give us.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that whatever any automation system does, you can do as well. Turn the lights on or off? Easy. Draw the blinds, turn on the sprinklers or show some visual indication of temperature? Done and done, even though it may take a bit more time doing it by hand, but with a lot less cost than what some of these systems below go for. So why should we buy one? What do we need that warrants the cost?

One of the answers (because I’m not talking about people with disabilities, mainly because they have a specific set of requirements that may or may not be fulfilled by these systems) is convenience. Sure, we can get off the couch and turn the lights off when the movie starts, but what if something could do that for us? We do it every day; the system would see a lot of use. That is the first requirement. It should be convenient to use, automatic if possible, and usable more than once in a blue moon – preferably every day. That justifies the cost a lot more easily than just “it’s cool to have”, and you wouldn’t believe how fast you get used to having lights go on and off in response to you entering the room – I’ve come to expect it in friends’ homes and am usually puzzled it doesn’t happen.

Another requirement is the system should be easy to install. No wires if possible (nobody wants a tangled mess half hidden behind couches and running wires through doorframes is more trouble than it’s worth). The first system should be easy enough to configure that users can get it up and running in an hour or less. This also implies it should be as general use as possible – no custom solutions yet. You might have a specific use case in mind, but we’ll go with something everyone can use right now (yes, those hydroponics systems can wait a bit).

The last though surely not least, is price. We need costs to be as low as possible, but sometimes that’s just not realistic. As with everything else, getting a nice looking, streamlined solution from one of the many providers out there will cost a few dollars, and it may come with benefits such as installation support; however, by sourcing parts and settling for a more DYI look a lot of money can sometimes be saved without compromising function. Cost is last in this list of requirements because right now it’s just a theoretical exercise and we need to see what’s available before we make any commitment.

Thus, to summarize, the general requirements for our system are:

  • it should bring convenience to our lives;
  • it should see frequent usage;
  • it should not be difficult to install;
  • it should have a reasonable cost;
  • as much as is possible, it should be flexible so as to be as futureproof as possible.

Taking these into consideration, let’s see some areas where a system could help by bringing the most convenience. One of them is light control – turning lights on or off from the comfort of our couch or when entering a hallway or room, and it fulfills the above mentioned criteria perfectly. It’s very convenient, frequently used, installation is usually easy enough, and there are inexpensive solutions as well as expensive ones. It can also save money on the electric bill and it’s environment-friendly too. Also, with a bit of planning, the system can be extended when additional features are required like temperature, light or other sensors.

The light control system

Usually, you’ll find there is more than one way to do anything. From most simple, to most complex, here are some options.

The simplest way is the ready-made way. There are controllable light bulbs that screw into the existing socket, and we have our choices below, in the handy table. Some offer different colors, some don’t, and they all require a smartphone to operate. For our system we’ll choose the Philips Hue

Philips Hue

The basic system is comprised of a Zigbee hub and three dimmable, color bulbs. They are LED bulbs that can make an atmosphere in a small to medium room. There’s also an iOS or Android app that you can use to control the settings - turn the lights on and off, dim them or change colors. You can set “scenes” - special presets with colors for each bulb that can be recalled easily and there is support for scheduling, albeit not that great. However, there is an API available, which means it can be hacked and used with a computer to extend its functionality.

All this comes with a hefty price tag though - $60 per bulb and $200 for the starter pack (hub plus three bulbs).

Specifications

Online

  • Control system: Zigbee protocol, via hub (required)
  • LED bulbs
  • dimmable
  • colored
  • API available, programmable
  • Android and iOS app
  • color range 2,000 – 8,000 K
  • power: 9W

Advantages

  • works out of the box
  • system is extendable, more bulbs can be added at any time
  • low maintenance, less time spent on the initial configuration
  • no hacking required, no computer skills

Disadvantages

  • not very flexible, as the Zigbee protocol is less well known than, say, WI-FI
  • pricey
  • the hub and spokes system does just one thing (though admittedly does it well).

So if we look at our requirements, this system is convenient, sees frequent usage, is easy to install though not quite flexible as it can be extended only with bulbs from the same vendor and of the same type. The price point brings its overall value down but four out of five requirements fulfilled is not shabby at all.

Lifx - Another option

LIFX is another color LED lightbulb system that has inbuilt WI-FI, disposing of the hub that the Philips Hue system uses, though it is quite pricey as well, at $100 a bulb.

It also has Android and iOS apps that control the bulbs via WI-FI. This is advantageous as you only need the bulbs and a WI-FI router, and as the bulbs work in a mesh network, they can extend the network beyond the router’s reach. However, this adds to their design in that their footprint is really large and the bulbs might not fit some light fixtures.

Specifications

Online

  • Control system: WI-FI, 802.11 b/g/n compliant
  • LED bulbs
  • dimmable
  • colored
  • API available, programmable (Android SDK available)
  • Android and iOS app
  • color temperature: 2,700 - 8,000 K
  • power: 17 W

Advantages

  • works out of the box
  • system is extendable, more bulbs can be added at any time
  • low maintenance, less time spent on the initial configuration
  • no hacking required, no computer skills
  • system is more flexible, as it does not mean committing to a certain technology or protocol. It can be integrated with other control systems quite easily since its underlying requirement is a WI-FI network that should be available in most places

Disadvantages

  • pricey
  • large, it might not fit into some light fixtures
  • runs very hot

A few years ago one would have been hard pressed to find a kind of light bulb that could be controlled by phone, and now there is not one but two kinds of bulb out there that can do the job. A few more are in the design stage, and others have taken different routes to light control – the smart switch from Plumlife looking very promising.

However, if simple automation is all that is required, these two systems, one from an established electronics manufacturer and one from a relative newcomer that got a lot of support from crowdfunding fit the bill quite nicely. Although a lot of people had faith in the technology – enough that Philips decided to get a share of the market, and enough that a successful crowdfunding campaign helped Lifx to bring a product to the market – there is still room for improvement.

For example, the bulbs can be made simpler, or smaller. LED technology radiates heat, but there are other technologies out there that can fit the already existing sockets that do not need huge radiators to disperse said heat. Also, the wireless component adds a lot to the cost – so Philips seems to be going the right way here, delegating the heavy lifting to the hub and including a smaller, perhaps cheaper part into the bulbs themselves. Also, as is usually the case in engineering, there are other ways to get to the same place – controlling lights without the added cost or complexity, but perhaps by spending some other resource – like time. There is another way to control the lighting system in a home, by controlling the switches via radio. It requires the radio transmitter, and special radio controlled sockets or switches but those are relatively cheap. However, the switches need to be installed into the walls (sockets go into the existing ones), so there is a bit of added complexity there, but the price is relatively low - $50 for the transmitter and $10 for each switch. This will be discussed in greater detail in the next installment of this series.

Conclusion

If you are looking for a simple way to control some (or all) the lights in your home, and want no hassle, these systems should work. They both fit the bill – they will see lots of use, so their price is easier justified (because let’s be honest, there will always be that question – why not buy regular bulbs?). They bring convenience and a bit of a cool factor to a home. They are very easy to install, working well right out of the box and while pricey, they are not prohibitively expensive. They both work fine for general use, although the Lifx seems better suited for mood lighting because they run hot and might not fit everywhere, so replacing every bulb from your home with a Lifx bulb might not work exactly as intended. The same could be said for the Philips Hue bulbs – for their price, they might better fit certain lamps or alcoves to change the atmosphere in a room rather than be used as always white general lighting as there are much cheaper options for that, which we will explore in more detail in the next article.

So stay tuned as we will try to build a better, cheaper system that can be expanded to control and collect information from meteorological stations and other sensors in the next chapter.


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