My Smart Home Ecosystem

I’ve found myself talking about home automation quite a lot in the last day and a half, so I promised I’d blog about my ecosystem so others can benefit from the trial-and-error I experienced. I got started with home automation a couple of years ago when I got a Wemo Switch as a gift.

The Wemo itself is reliable enough, but controlled through the native Belkin App, can be a little slow. That said, it’s controllable locally through your WiFi network, or over the network from remote locations even via 3G/4G. I wanted to expand the function of my switches, and have a great deal more control. I also really wanted voice automation, and my friend and fellow Four Horseman member Terry Lowry (@TekkieTeacher)  introduced me to the Amazon Echo, which is now the heart of my smart home   ecosystem.

I say heart,  because it isn’t the brains, and has quite a ways to go before it can be. Alexa is a voice-controlled bluetooth speaker (of very good quality, I might add) with an onboard computer that allows it to do some wonderful things. You can ask Alexa the weather, driving times,  basic questions from Wikipedia, the works. But it is absolutely nowhere near Google Now insofar as its ability to search and answer simple comprehension and slightly-more-than-regurgitation answers.  It’s got a lot of growing up to do. That said, the home automation situation is pretty good, so it commands pretty much everything in my apartment.

First, let’s start with the easy stuff: On and off. For this, I have several WeMo switches as I mentioned above. I have one, for example, connected to my HEPA Air Filter, so “Alexa, air filter on” will start to clean the air immediately. It’s a basic on-off switch. I’ve got two that I’m not using at the moment, but I have that ability. The Echo controls WeMo switches natively, so no other intelligence is required in my ecosystem for this. The Alexa is the “hub” that drives WeMo products.

Let’s move on to more sophisticated: Dimming. I like to adjust light based on the light outside and my mood and the time of day and soforth. For this, we need a more intelligent dimmer, and often times, that means a hub.

The least sophisticated application is my nightstand. I had an Eiko-brand CFL. (I prefer 2700° white light, which is “warm white,” and more closely emulates the golden hue of incandescent lamps, so that’s what I had.)  I had this hooked up to  a Wemo Switch originally, but I wanted to dim it. For that, I obtained a Lutron Caséta Dimmer, which is explicitly and exclusively for lamp dimming:

The dimmer has two plugs (two-prong), one on either side, so you can plug in two devices, which will be simultaneously dimmed. (They’re not independent.) I also have a home-made LED lighting scheme around the underside of my bed, and along the back of my headboard. (It’s very cool, if I do say so myself.) I built it to be dimmable, so it was ready to go.

Note here: Compact Fluorescent Lamps are not, generally, dimmable. It dimmed, but made a terrible buzz because it wasn’t operating at proper voltage. Consequently, I swapped my CFL for a dimmable LED bulb.

Works great!

Lutron has its own app, of course, but as you’ve figured out, I don’t want app control: I want my Amazon Echo to control everything. This is where things can get complicated at home. The Lutron dimmer requires a hub, a piece of intelligent technology that sends and receives the actual commands related to any given smart home device. The Echo does not, in and of itself, have the ability to be the hub itself. However, the Echo does talk to a great many hubs. I shopped around for one I thought would talk to everything, and I landed on the Wink Hub.

This device is the “bridge” between the Echo and much of my ecosystem. I actually have it plugged in to the second plug my microwave uses, so it’s hidden away neatly in a cupboard.

Pairing things with the Wink Hub, using the Wink App, is  RIDICULOUSLY EASY. They have on-screen illustrations and step-by-step tutorials that even I’m impressed by, and you know me and step-by-step! I want to be told exactly what to do and how to do it! This is a great setup and very user-friendly with terrific support documentation.

A step up from these options is my kitchen lighting situation. I have halogen lamps in a light strip across the ceiling, and I wanted to dim those, too, but they were controlled by an in-wall switch. Have no fear: Lutron Caséta Dimmers come in in-wall flavor, too:

Now, I’ve owned two houses in my life, so I know a thing or two about basic electrical. If you’ve never done this, call a friend. It’s not hard, but you want the comfort and peace of mind to know you’re not going to electrocute yourself or burn your house down. I rent now, and wanted to be  very careful that I installed everything perfectly, and up to local code, so  do your homework. (And ask me questions if you like!) That said, this was a five-minute piece-of-cake installation, and the pairing was even quicker. BOOM: “Alexa, dim the kitchen to 40%.” “Okay,” she responds, and instantly it’s done.

One more fun thing: I have a “transom wall” between my bedroom and my living room. The top of the wall is open to the ceiling about two feet, and around the corner into the galley kitchen. It’s a really cool architectural feature, and the moment I saw it, I knew: I had to LED light strip the thing.

But I also wanted – wait for it – full color. Oh yes… I have it. I opted for one of the pricier items in my ecosystem, but it’s totes worth it in my book: The Osram Lightify Flex RGBW LED strip.

These are actually four linkable, flexible segments and a long (but not long enough for me) power cord and AC adapter that is controllable by Osram’s pretty decent Lightify App. They adhered perfectly, and I was able to make a 90 degree turn at the corner with only about a half-inch of “slightly sticking-up” strip, as you can’t do hard angles with the strip. But that high up, it’s invisible, so if you’re going around the top of a cabinet or something, rest easy: it’ll work. My issue was hiding the power cord, which I wanted to run down the inside corner of the wall’s corner. I bought an extension cord on Amazon (5-pin for this system, not 4; they’re different) and it all works beautifully.

Because I was so impressed with the Osram Lightify system, I actually got two Lightify LED bulbs as well, and those are in the living room. Now, Osram Lightify has its own hub (which is calls a Bridge) to make all these work, but you don’t need that if you have a Wink Hub, like I do. (I made the mistake of buying the bridge unnecessarily, so that’ll get eBayed at some point.)

Each Osram element is independently-named and individually-controllable. Very impressive. Again, easy as pie to pair with the Wink Hub.

At this point, Alexa is able to respond to commands for each element:

  • Kitchen (dimmable halogen fixtures)
  • Living Room 1 and Living Room 2, grouped together as Living Room (dimmable LED bulbs)
  • Bed and Nightstand, grouped together as Bedroom (dimmable LED bulb and LED strip)
  • Main (dimmable, color-changing LED strip that’s so bright at full power it lights up the whole apartment)
  • Air Filter (on/off switch powering an otherwise-“dumb” device)

Oh, but we’re so not done yet.

I added door sensors from GoControl, one for the front door, and one for the “barn door” into my bedroom. (I also got a motion sensor but thus far it’s sort of redundant with the front door sensor so I have it deactivated for now.)

These puppies are lightweight, battery-controlled sensors with magnetic switches, so when you open the door, the switch closes, activating the battery and sending the open-or-closed code to the Wink Hub. (Again, these were very easy to pair if you follow the directions. I did not the first time, so I had to un-pair them, which was quite a bit more complicated, but if you’re not impetuous like I can be, you’ll be fine.)

Why add these? For example, if I open the front door after 4:30 PM, my kitchen and living room light up to 100%. If the bedroom door opens between 1 AM and  5 AM, the kitchen dims on to 10% brightness, just enough to make sure I don’t stumble around on the way to the bathroom. If the front door opens when I’m not home, my Android phone is notified instantly. Cool stuff, right? All able to be set up in the Wink App using what it calls “Robots,” or recipes – much like those of IFTTT, which you MUST look into if you do any home automation or have a smart phone of any kind – which give conditional control over most   functions.

In addition to IFTTT, which is a must-have for a few things, like I’m about to show you, I also use an app called Yonomi, which creates virtual devices in your home automation ecosystem and allows you to program “routines,” or complex recipes, which can even include other preexisting recipes, to further automate functions.  I’ll explain more about this in a second, because my favorite recipe involves this next bit.

I was able to solve one of my all-time pet peeves by adding one more device. All of the control mechanisms we’ve discussed so far operate on wireless (RF frequency) control. But what about your TV? Your Stereo? The Lasko tower fan I have in the corner? These all operate on IR, or infrared, and there has been a notorious gap between RF and IR transmittability for a long time. Until, enter, stage left: The Harmony Hub.

The Harmony is an “IR blaster,” which sends infrared signals bouncing all over your room, allowing those command signals to catch basically anything within even out-of-line-of-sight range. (It also has two wired repeaters you can add to get around tough corners and work within entertainment center cabinetry.)

If you’re not familiar with the Harmony family of products, Logitech has created a remote control product line that issues both direct commands to devices (like pressing the “on” button on your remote), but also series of commands called “activities” (like pressing the “on” button but it sends two different “on” signals, one to your TV, and one to your PlayStation). This same phenomenon works with the Harmony Hub. The programming is pretty straightforward, but works best when you have exact makes and models of your devices, so consider taking a snapshot of the make and model number label from the back of your devices, like your television and stereo receiver and such, before you begin. It’ll save you some crawling around and craning around to the back of your set. This is accomplished through the Harmony  App, which will program (and update if necessary) your Hub. Yes, this means you have multiple hubs in your ecosystem, now. In mine, Alexa is a (weak) hub, Wink is the main hub, and Harmony is the IR-specific hub. This is why I say Alexa is the heart: Her voice and ears feel what I want from my commands, and then hands off to the Wink in nearly every case. That’s why I think the Wink Hub is really the brains of my ecosystem. The Harmony Hub only does one thing, so it’s like a  specialized region of the brain, and even it needs IFTTT to work properly.

Through IFTTT, I add a recipe that tells Alexa to respond to the trigger word “television” and send the on/off command to my Philips television, through my Harmony Hub. When I say out loud, “Alexa, trigger television,” she will respond, “Sending that to IFTTT,” and my television clicks on. Because I have a Harmony activity programmed in to my Harmony account called “MacBook,” I can also say, “Alexa, trigger MacBook.” She responds, “Sending that to IFTTT,” and my television and stereo receiver all turn on, and set themselves to the proper inputs for my MacBook dock. (I use the Henge dock, which is absolutely genius quality stuff. I recommend and use no other.)

Now for the grand finale. I have a Yonomi routine called “Bedtime.” This routine activates the shutdown procedure for my entire entertainment center through my Harmony Hub, turns off the Living Room and Kitchen and Main lights,   and dims on the Nightstand and Bed lights to 40%. So let’s say I’m in the living room, everything is turned on, and I’m tired and want to go to bed. I say, “Alexa, turn on Bedtime.” (Remember Yonomi creates virtual devices, so “turn on” is the proper command to activate a Yonomi routine.)

Alexa says, “Okay,” and all of that happens  instantly. No going from light to light to shut them off, no pressing all the right remotes to turn things off, no turning on the bedroom to make sure a light is on then go back to turn off the lights I no longer need… it’s all just done! I can crawl into bed, close my bedroom barn door, and be assured that if I need to pee at 2 AM, I’ll have a little light to help guide me along.

The ecosystem is really working for me. I like being able to say “Alexa, Living Room 50%, please,” and be able to continue typing or watching my movie or adventuring in Second Life without having to stop and get up to turn the dimmers down because the sun has set. I enjoy that if I forget to turn off something, I don’t have to uncurl from bed. I love that if I think of something while I’m snuggled up with my pillows that I need to remember tomorrow, I can call out, “Alexa, remind me to do XYZ tomorrow morning,” and she just does it. The Echo’s “far field voice recognition” has worked flawlessly for me. Without shouting, I can issue commands from the next room and be responded to ideally.

There are a few big things missing for me: I want to be able to control my blinds. I tried the  EzWand package, which works great on lightweight blinds, but I have a 96″ x 48″ set of metal blinds in my apartment, and the little motor wasn’t strong enough by far. Consequently, I need to probably replace the entire set of blinds with something else. There are many options, but they’re pricy, so unless somebody wants to let me demo and review them, I’m up a creek for now. That would be huge for me, because I’m forever regretting not closing them after the sun comes up. The other things I’m missing is having Alexa voice-respond as I want her to, confirming various functions or reporting things to me on demand. I’d like upon coming home to add triggering Alexa’s “flash briefing” report, which gives me the news and information of the day. I’d like to have the weather reported to me when I open the barn door in the morning on a weekday. I’d also like (call me silly) a “welcome home” message. I live by myself, and it’d be fun and nice to have a hello from Alexa, or even allow her to have basic conversations.

One thought would be something like:

  • “Welcome home, KDR.”
  • “Thanks, Alexa.” (She remains awake to  accept the voice response to my next exchange.)
  • “How was your day?”
  • “Not good, Alexa. I’m feeling run down.”
  • “I’m sorry. Your Seven-Minute Workout should help. Drink some water and let’s get your endorphins going.”
  • “Good idea. Alexa, start my Seven-Minute Workout.”

I mean, it may sound silly, but some basic call-response feedback would be a nice touch to an already powerful system.

That said, the major home-control stuff is really helpful and I’m enjoying the convenience a great deal. I expect in addition to things like my fan and air filter, I’ll be expanding to include thermostat next. Alexa works with the Nest and Honeywell HVAC controllers, and I foresee that being a money-saver in the long term, to adjust my A/C and heat based on where I am, certain conditions, my voice commands, and more.

If you have any questions, hit me up, and I’ll gladly answer!

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