Ask LH: How Can I Get Started With Home Automation?

Ask LH: How Can I Get Started With Home Automation?

Dear Lifehacker, I want to set up some basic home automation systems but I’ve never done anything like this before. How do I get started? For that matter, what kind of things can I do? Any advice appreciated! Thanks, Manual Living

Dear Manual,

“Home automation” is a category that can cover anything from really basic systems to extremely complex tasks depending on who you ask. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by jargon and devices and standards. The simplest way to wade into home automation is eliminate the clutter and focus on what you actually want to do.

Deciding what you want will go a long way in determining your budget, your method, and how much time you’ll be investing in setting things up. With the right level of ingenuity, the sky’s the limit on things you can automate in your home, but here are a few basic categories of tasks that you can pursue:

  • Automate your lights to turn on and off on a schedule, remotely, or when certain conditions are triggered.
  • Set your air conditioner to keep the house pleasant when you’re home and save energy while you’re away.
  • Open your blinds during the day and shut them at night (or when it’s particularly hot).
  • Feed your pets on a schedule and with pre-determined amounts of food.
  • Open your garage door with voice commands.
  • If you do something repeatedly, you can probably automate it one way or another. Just about everything that runs on electricity (and several things that aren’t) can be made smarter and possibly even hooked in to a central system. What kind of system should that be, though? There are a few approaches you can take.

    Automate The Easy Way

    The simplest way to get started with simple home automation tasks is to buy tools that are specialised for certain tasks. For some things, you can use simple timers and sensors to turn the ordinary devices you already have into smart robots from the future. As an example, in the video above, a simple Christmas light timer is used to automatically turn on a coffee pot so that it’s already brewing when you wake up.

    In the same vein, there are very simple remote control outlet units that allow you to press a single button anywhere in the house and turn anything connected to a power outlet on and off. This isn’t “automation”, strictly speaking, but it can be very useful. If you want to get a bit more advanced, you can use a device such as the Belkin WeMo.

    The WeMo is a simple, self-contained wireless automation unit that plugs in to your power outlet. It connects directly to your Wi-Fi and can be controlled with an iOS device (an Android app is currently in beta). This gives you a bit more flexibility than simple timers, allowing you to activate switches manually, set schedules, and monitor their status remotely. You can even hook it up to the webapp-automating IFTTT. It’s a great device for beginners to start automating stuff.

    Step Up Your Game

    A power outlet plugin is neat, but it’s hardly a complete home automation system. If you want to get into some more advanced features, you’re going to need to choose a network protocol that allows your various peripherals to communicate with a central device.

    There are a number of standards out there that you can choose for your devices. If you decide to go this route, the bulk of your time will probably be spent deciding which one to use. Here are a few of the bigger protocols in the home automation world today:

    Picking a protocol for your needs is beyond the scope of this article, but your best bet is to map out exactly what you want in your system first, then choose a standard that will accommodate your immediate needs and allow you to upgrade as you deem necessary. Remember as you do your research that the best solution is the one that works for you.

    Once you’ve picked your standard, you need three things:

    • Software: Whether you’ll be controlling your system via your desktop, smartphone or tablet, you’ll need software to run the system. You can get much of this for free either by buying dedicated devices or using open source software.
    • A transceiver/coordinator: Your commands are useless if your master control software can’t talk to your peripherals. A transceiver or coordinator device is a box (or set of devices) that issues wireless commands to your network. Devices such as the Veralite are simple, self-contained units that even come with some software. With cheaper USB devices, make sure software is available..
    • Sensors, switches and peripherals: Something has to carry out your commands. Depending on what you want to automate, you may need to install wall switches, replace a door lock, or do other light maintenance. (Remember: if work involves your household electrical system, you need to pay an electrician to do it — working on electrical wiring is illegal in Australia.)

    You don’t have to stick with the basic software. Once you have one device that acts as the master control program for your network, there are always neat ways to extend your setup. As you see in the video above, one Veralite user built on top of his setup with Tasker and AutoVoice to make a completely voice-controlled system.

    Get Crazy With Arduino And Raspberry Pi

    Advanced hackers build their own automated systems from scratch. Platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi offer the dedicated developer the ability to build customised solutions for unique situations.

    A quick primer if you’re not familiar with the terminology: the Arduino or Raspberry Pi is a small, programmable mini-computer. You can attach sensors, motors, switches and all manner of fun stuff to it. Because it’s so small and so modular, you can use it to build specialised electronic devices.

    As an example, in the video above, an Arduino is used to build a light-sensitive automated blind system. Similarly, a Raspberry Pi board can be used to create an automated pet-feeding dispenser. Our own Whitson Gordon shows off how to build a portable XBMC media centre in under 30 minutes. The versatility of these little devices is incredible.

    With added versatility, however, comes added complexity. If you want to get started with any kind of Arduino/Raspberry Pi project, you should probably have a bit of programming background, some familiarity with electronics, and some time set aside to design your system. There’s a lot more creative and engineering work involved here than there is in something like the Veralite.

    Here are a few resources you should check out if you want to get started:

    Many DIYers are really good about documenting their projects, so with a little effort, there are a wide number of projects you should be able to recreate or build on top of. If you don’t have any programming or electronics experience, it can be intimidating at first, but don’t let that stop you.


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