July 29, 2020

Everyday Automation: At Home

I reached out to a few of our employees recently to hear more about how they're using automation to manage their homes and work.

Everyday Automation: At Home

Data engineer Jenny Wrench and her husband Greg have automated their property from corner to corner. Here's what Greg had to share with us.

Getting set up

When I started looking into home automation, Apple had launched HomeKit and I wanted to use this new functionality. Unfortunately in South Africa, access to compatible devices was limited, Philips Hue was the only compatible product available in South Africa. So I started looking if it was possible to hack other smart devices to make them work with Apple HomeKit. This led me to Home Assistant (https://home-assistant.io) which can act as a bridge to Apple HomeKit, Google Home and Alexa for non compatible devices.

Home Assistant is much more though, it is an actively developed, open source home automation platform designed to run on anything from a Raspberry Pi to a full fledged home server. Home Assistant allows local control of your smart home reducing the reliance on an internet connection to control your home. Through built in and community developed integrations you can link almost any smart device to home assistant. This allows you to use a single app to control your devices regardless of the brand or protocol. No more using app A to turn on your living room light and app B to turn on the lamp.

Google Home, Amazon and Apple Homekit also want to be a single point for you to control all your devices. They are part of a new initiative called ‘Project Connected Home over IP’, which has the aim to create an open standard for all smart devices to use. This will create greater compatibility among smart home products, with security as a fundamental design tenet.

I would say that the Google, Amazon and Apple would be for the average person where ease of setup is key. Home Assistant caters to this market as well but also to those who want to dig deeper and not be limited to a single ecosystem.

One of the most important considerations when automating a home should be to enhance functionality without removing usability. For example, this is why I prefer smart switches over smart bulbs. A smart bulb requires the wall switch to be on all the time, and then you can control the bulb using its app. If someone turns off the wall switch, you can’t turn on the smart bulb from its app. A smart switch would replace the wall switch and keep the existing bulb, and allow you you use the wall switch or an app to turn the light on. There are other considerations, a smart bulb is usually able to change colour, whereas a smart switch can only turn a light on and off.

There is a large community of Home Automation Hackers whose goal is to find cheaper alternatives to the expensive options for automation. Using ESP8266 chips, relays and an assortment of available sensors they then write their own firmware or use one of the available open source firmware options to build their own devices to provide functionality for home automation.

How I use home automation every day.

One of my first automations was our outside lights. On our property, we have the house, a cottage, and a separate garage. Each of the buildings has its own outside lights, with the switches located in the respective buildings.

I added smart switches to each of the outside lights and then added them to a group. This means I can now control all the outside lights with one click.  I then took it one step further by adding a sensor to the driveway gate that tells the home automation when the gate is open. I then added an automation that turns on the outside lights when the gate opens after sunset. Now if you arrive home after dark the outside lights will turn on when you open the gate to enter the property.

We also have a camera at the driveway gate and using the open/close sensor on the driveway gate, I am able to get a notification on my phone with a snapshot from the camera when the gate opens.

I use location tracking on our phones to make sure lights and heaters are automatically turned off if no one is home.

I use a light sensor to turn on evening lights inside the house when it gets dark enough rather than at a specific time.

I use a smart switch and sunrise and sunset times to control my pool pump and solar pool heating, this allows for the pool pump to run less during the winter when the pool isn’t being used and also ensures that the pump is only circulating the water through the solar panels when the sun is up.

Using a 4 way smart switch and Home Assistant, I have automated my garden sprinklers. I can set the start time, day of the week and watering time. However to make it smarter I added a digital rain meter, now it will only run the sprinklers if the rain threshold hasn’t been met. It will also turn off if it starts raining while the sprinkler program is running.

While I haven’t found a readily available app controlled solution for automating a geyser, a geyser timer should be on everyone’s list for home automation. Even a simple timer switch on your geyser is still home automation. It may not be ‘Smart’ but this is how we automated our homes for many years. Being able to control how much electricity your geyser uses can save a large amount on your electricity bill. A geyser timer will pay for itself within a few months in most cases.

My daughter has a LED nightlight in her room. It is automated to come on at bed time to her favourite pink colour. The light stays pink until it is time to get up when the light changes to green. If only it was this easy to control the behaviour of a toddler. The idea is from Rob at the smart home hookup on youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OgDABg0BptM

Thinking outside the box is Drzzs on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3R2Wttd4Os), he has teenage sons, so he used a door sensor on the toilet lid, and a magnetic lock on the door. When you lift the toilet lid the door locks, then to get out of the bathroom you have to close the toilet lid to unlock the door. Closing the toilet lid also activates the automatic air freshener.

These are just a few uses I have implemented, there are many more, and the industry is constantly evolving.

Greg Wrench


Look out for more from our Everyday Automation series in the weeks to come. If you'd like to learn for about how we're automating businesses - please reach out to me on jasonh@dotmodus.com

Jason Harvey

Blog footer image