Interested in automating your home? There are options galore—from sophisticated systems that are best installed by a trained professional, those that you can buy and have installed by your Internet Service Provider, and packages of automation gear available online and at retail outlets that are designed to be set up by homeowners. The latter is an approach that, due to a number of reasons, has been gaining momentum in the home automation market. As wireless networking technologies (the communications backbone on which most DIY-friendly systems perform) have improved, so has the reliability of DIY automation systems. Setting up rules and schedules for devices controlled by DIY systems has become much easier than in the past, too (you no longer need to be a computer programmer to get a system up and running). Finally, there’s consumers’ increasing comfort level with technology: The thought of using a smartphone app to interact with a control system or to script a schedule for the lights and thermostats to follow isn’t as intimidating to most people as it once was. Combine all these factors with a market proliferated with products, and your home is ripe for a DIY automation system. Want to learn what’s possible? Eager to understand what’s involved in installing a DIY system? The following three DIYers share their experiences here. What each has been able to create is nothing short of outstanding.
The Homeowner Kevin Hiser
The System Wink
Location Columbus, Ohio
Amount Spent Between $800 and $1,000
Cool Factor The Wink system sets the lights a certain way based on the location of the owners’ smartphones.
Having “played” with numerous DIY automation systems over the years, Kevin Hiser was no stranger to the technology. He also wasn’t a huge fan. “I could never find anything that met my expectations—expectations that were actually very low.”
His two biggest must-haves were an interface that was easy to understand and an open networking protocol so that the system would be able to communicate with products from a range of manufacturers. GE’s Wink system, he believed, could finally be the answer to his home automation prayers. Kevin spent months following the system’s development through reports online, and the second it hit the shelves at Home Depot, he snatched one up.
His starter Wink package was very basic, including a Wink Hub and two Lutron Caseta dimmer switches. Kevin had much bigger plans, but wanted to make sure Wink would be up for the task before he dropped a load of money into it. As his jumping off point, Kevin installed the two smart dimmer switches in the master bedroom and family room, and used the Wink app on his smartphone to control them. “The reason was for pure and simple laziness,” he admits. “I just wanted to be able to dim them from the bed or the couch from my phone.”
It wasn’t long, though, before Kevin was back at Home Depot buying more switches to add to the system. There are now smart switches for the lights in the kitchen, the exterior, and a switch to control the gas fireplace in the family room. He also integrated several smart LED light bulbs from GE. The switches and bulbs are all controllable via the app, but he also put many of them on daily timers by using the scheduling program (accessible from any smartphone) within the Wink app. “Scheduling the lights is easier and takes no more time than putting an appointment on my Google calendar,” Kevin says. “And for our family it’s been great. We are notorious for leaving lights on; now the Wink system remembers for us.” The Wink system also bases the home’s illumination on the location of the family’s smartphones. Here’s how it works, as set up by Kevin himself: When the Hiser family returns home at sunset (a time per the Wink’s schedule that certain house lights are off), the Wink system uses geo-fencing technology to sense that their smartphones are within a certain predefined range of the house and responds by turning the lights on.
The link between the smartphones and the Wink system has afforded the Hisers greater convenience, but there are times when they just want to walk into a room and turn a light on without reaching for their phones. For this, they mounted a Wink Relay Touchscreen Controller ($300 each) to the walls in a couple of rooms. The touchscreen runs the Wink app, just as their smartphones do, but in addition, it displays the status of the smart light switches and bulbs, the temperature, and is built into a faceplate that sports two buttons to turn the room lights on and off. More recently, it also presents the status of the garage doors, thanks to the integration of The Bridge from Pella Doors and Windows. This device sends status reports to the Wink system, so the owners need only glance at a touchscreen or at the text messages on their smartphones—either at home or while they’re on the road—to see if the garage doors are open or closed. If they need to close them they can do it right from the Wink app.
The Homeowner Scott Cunnyngham
The System Lowe’s Iris
Location Tampa, Florida
Amount Spent Around $3,000
Cool Factor The Lowe’s Iris system allowed the homeowners to schedule the swimming pool filter to run at more optimal times, which lead to a 50 percent reduction in usage, and clearer water.
Scott Cunnyngham began his quest for home technology by prewiring his new 2,800-square-foot home for a system that would distribute audio and video from a rack of gear to speakers and TVs throughout the house. That was 14 years ago. While this system still exists, home automation had always tugged at his heartstrings. “Home automation had always been my inspiration; it just took a while to find the ‘right’ system,” Scott says. The right system for Scott and his family turned out to be the Iris from Lowe’s.
Iris was one of the first available home automation systems designed expressly for do-it-yourselfers that offered remote control and management from an Internet-connected device. Although there are now many other choices available, “I would still select the Iris ecosystem,” says Scott. “When I first started using Iris, there were only four or five devices available. There are now about 50 and they keep adding more all the time. Plus, I’ve always found their support to be very fast and responsive.”
Scott initially used the Iris system to have the lights turn on and off at certain times of the day; this lead to automating the lawn irrigation system, then the swimming pool filtration, and then the AC and heating system. Scott also made sure to install plenty of motion and door sensors throughout the house to augment the automation of connected devices. Using the system’s Magic configuration tool (found on the Iris website), Scott created rules for the sensors to follow. For example, if a sensor notices that the garage door has opened, it turns off the security alarm and puts the house into Home mode—a setting which also adjusts the thermostat and lights for the family’s arrival.
Scott also installed a sensor on the door of the mailbox. Whenever it opens, he receives a text message from the Iris system that lets him know that his mail has been delivered. When he’s expecting a valuable delivery, he sets up a new rule for the mailbox sensor to follow: When the mailbox door opens, so does one of the garage doors, which allows the delivery person to leave the package in the garage. A motion sensor in the garage detects when the delivery person has exited the garage and the garage door closes. Scott is notified by the Iris system whenever any of these events occur.
Setups like this are making life more comfortable, convenient, and secure for the Cunnynghams, but “where I’m really seeing a benefit is in our energy costs,” says Scott. “Our household electricity bill is 40 percent less, thanks to Iris.” By installing a $150 energy monitor from Blueline to his home’s electric meter, Scott has been able to track which components are using the most energy. Using this information, he has determined that his home’s lights and air conditioning system were consuming lots of electricity. “We were constantly leaving lights, fans, and the AC on while we were gone. Now when we leave, the Iris system turns them off automatically and sets back the thermostat. Through a program set up through Magic, the Iris also locks any doors that were left unlocked and closes the garage door if we forget to do so.”
Also through research and calculations, Scott discovered that he could keep the swimming pool water cleaner by running the filter four hours a day, broken up into several chunks of time, instead of running it a steady eight hours. “By programming this schedule into the Iris system, I cut my pool filter usage by 50 percent, and the pool water has never looked better.”
The Homeowner Steve Ganz
The System SmartThings
Location Leesburg, Virginia
Amount Spent Several thousand dollars
Cool Factor Hands-free activation of a garage door opener and a setup that required Steve to work with other SmartThings owners on the company’s online community forum to develop a specific application programming interface (API).
Steve Ganz believes his proclivity for technology is genetic. “My dad was a technologist, so I was surrounded by it at a very young age,” he says. “I followed in his footsteps and installed an X-10-based home automation system in my first home, a 900-square-foot condo, in the mid-90s.”
Home automation has evolved significantly since then, and so has Steve’s tastes. Although he still describes himself as a tinkerer, simplicity of set-up has become paramount to the adoption of technology in his now 5,000-square-foot home. For Steve, this meant selecting a home automation hub that was able to communicate with light switches, thermostats, and other gear through a variety of networking protocols, including Z-Wave, ZigBee, and Wi-Fi. “I was planning on buying products that adhered to all three of networking protocols, so a versatile home automation hub was essential,” he says.
This quest for an open platform led him to SmartThings, and after some research online, he discovered an active online community of tech-enthusiasts like himself who had integrated the system successfully into their homes, were using it in some very innovative ways, and were eager to share their programming accomplishments with other SmartThings users. “I really wanted to be able to ‘get under the hood’ with this system, so this forum suited the software developer side in me.”
That’s not to suggest that you need to be a software developer to set up a SmartThings automation system. According to Ganz, it’s “ridiculously” easy to program when integrating devices like smart light switches; motion, moisture, temperature, and other sensors; electronic door locks, thermostats (Steve integrated a NEST); whole-house audio system (Sonos); and surveillance cameras (Dropcam). The welcome challenge for Steve was linking his home’s Chamberlain garage door opener into the SmartThings system. Thanks to the developer’s forum on the SmartThings website, Steve and other active SmartThings users were able to use existing APIs (application programming interfaces) to write a SmartApp to allow the garage door opener to be automated. Steve explains: “I attached with double-sided tape a SmartThings SmartSense multi-sensor to the driver’s side car door; it senses movement so when I open the door, it signals the SmartThings hub, which tells the garage door to open. As soon as my iPhone (which Steve carries with him at all times) is outside of the garage, SmartThings closes the garage door.” It’s as hands-free as it gets, and the reverse happens when Steve arrives home. The SmartThings geo-fencing feature senses that Steve’s iPhone is within range, and responds by opening the garage door and unlocking the electronic lock on the mudroom door. When Steve is inside and closes the mudroom door, a SmartSense Open/Closed sensor trips, and the garage door closes automatically.
Steve also applied the geo-fencing technology to the electronic lock on the front door. When the SmartThings hub senses that Steve’s son’s iPhone is within a certain proximity from the house, it unlocks the lock, but only between the hours of 3:30 and 3:45 (The lock can be manually unlocked by entering a code if the timeframe isn’t met). When his son closes the door, the lock automatically engages. “This provides the peace of mind that my son is safe, even if he forgets to lock the door himself,” Steve says.
While the integration of such a wide range of devices and the clever implementation of the SmartThings programming language is impressive, Steve has a lot more on his automation to-do list. For starters, he’s eager to incorporate a Rachio Iro smart sprinkler controller. He’s been using this device independent of the SmartThings system for some time, to automate the irrigation of his lawn. By tying it into SmartThings, though, he will be able to coordinate the irrigation of the lawn with other events. For example, when the garage door opens, and motion sensors detect that someone is at the front door, the irrigation schedule could be temporarily overridden to ensure that guests leaving the house don’t get wet. Other products that Steve may soon weave into the SmartThings operating platform include smart heating and cooling vents, and other types of wireless surveillance cameras. “No matter how long I have the SmartThings system there will always be upgrades and additions,” he says. EH