Many years ago I wrote a piece titled The Future is Not Here and complained about how, in that point in time, we still weren’t at the technological future we had been reading about. That same year, 2015, I wrote another piece about how smart my home was. Looking back on those two pieces of work makes me happy and sad at the same time. Sad that not much has changed in almost seven years, but happy that one thing is better; most of our homes are “smarter” than they were before.
When I wrote about my smart home several years ago I only had one smart device to brag about. Thanks to Google’s lack of innovation I’m still using the same 3rd generation Nest thermostat. While it’s the oldest device in my home’s technology package, it’s also the most reliable. Much like your home appliances, reliability is something we want out of our smart devices. What if, for some reason, the thermostat crashed and I couldn’t turn on the heat? Thankfully, that hasn’t happened to me while I’ve owned the Nest thermostat.
Along with the smart home market, the Beard Blog home has exploded with new gadgets and internet connected widgets. WiFi light bulbs, smart assistants (lady in a tube), garage door controllers, game consoles, TVs, fans, doorbells, cameras, door locks, refrigerators, outlets, blinds, and light switches are just some of the things I’ve integrated into my home life over the last four years. Throughout this series, I’m going to dive into my favorite devices and how I’m using them to again, make my home smarter.
Before we go too deep, I have to mention hubs or little boxes required to bridge some devices to your internet connection. These are usually included with a starter kit or part of the main device in the product’s offering. While we still haven’t settled on a standard smart home protocol (Bluetooth, HomeKit, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread, Matter), it is getting better. Some devices have been receiving software updates or hardware revisions to eliminate the hub. Even Apple HomeKit requires a hub if you want to access the device from outside your home. When I describe each device or system, I’ll be sure to mention if it requires a hub or not, which some people may not be fond of.
In addition to hubs that are made by the manufacturer, there are also third-party hubs to help bridge different protocols together. I’m going to deep dive into some of these hubs/bridges in a later post.
Light bulbs are all over our homes and making them “smart” is the easiest and most useful entry into having a smart home. You can easily swap a regular light bulb with a connected one and have the ability to control it from anywhere. We now live in a world where there is a wide variety of smart bulbs available at almost any retailer. Some are direct phone to bulb connections, while others attach to your network to enable multi-bulb control.
I got my start with smart lights from probably the most popular line since the smart bulb inception, Philips Hue. Some years ago I sprung for the Philips Hue color starter kit which included three color bulbs and a Hue hub. I quickly replaced three lamps in my living room with these bulbs and played with all the color combinations, much to my wife’s dismay. While the Hue bulbs are great, and have been updated over the years, they’re using old technology. The individual bulbs connect wirelessly back to the Hue hub over a proprietary Z-Wave connection. The Hue hub has to be hard-wired to your home network which then allows the bulbs to show up in Apple Home. The hub also allows you to control the lights when you’re outside of your home network. Newer light bulbs have emerged that are independent and use Thread to communicate with your network, providing you have a Thread router, like a HomePod mini. I have two Thread bulbs currently in my home, one of which replaced a malfunctioning Hue bulb from my original starter kit. Out of my 11 Hue bulbs that are six plus years old, I’ve only had one fail.
In addition to smart bulbs I have some other types of connected lights that I like even more than the bulbs. In my office, I have a three-pronged light attack that I mostly use on conference calls. First, there’s a Nanoleaf Essentials light strip on the wall directly in front of me. This works to illuminate my face and reduce shadows on my video calls. Behind me on the wall is an array of Nanoleaf Shapes. These panels change colors and create a neat light scape behind my head. Lastly, in the Ikea Kallax furniture piece behind me on the floor, is a Govee RGBiC light strip. This light strip can change colors independently in sections creating a cool effect inside the cubes of the Kallax. All three of these light setups, have independent controls and are able to be controlled from anywhere. The two Nanoleaf devices have the native ability to connect to Apple HomeKit, but the Govee strip does not.
Where I cannot have smart bulbs or light strips, I have connected light switches. This allows me to control lights connected through traditional electrical lines and not need any special bulbs or fixtures. We recently remodeled our finished basement and instead of going with smart fixtures we opted for a TP-Link dimmable smart switch. This dimmable smart switch controls the track lighting on the ceiling and can dim them to several brightness levels. This is ideal for a well lit room, where we may never use the full power of the LED lights.
On our back patio, we have a smart switch just inside the sliding door. This is a unique situation as the switch has two rockers on it to control two different lights. Then, to make it more complicated, I’ve added an outdoor smart outlet with two outlets on the one light switch. The internal switch controls the spotlight for the backyard, while the other switch turns on the outdoor outlet. That outdoor outlet controls a patio fan and overhead lighting. While it sounds complicated, it’s actually pretty simple when controlling them using physical controls, automations, or smart assistants. One gang, two switches, three devices.
My main purpose for all this smart lighting is not to be cool and have connected light bulbs, but more for ease of use and automations. The main area of my house, some may call it the living room, has no overhead lighting, so we rely on four lamps to provide light. Having to turn these on manually would be a pain and wiring them up to a switch would be costly. With smart bulbs, I have them set to turn on 30 minutes prior to sunset which ensures the room is well lit as the natural light declines.
While I’ve upgrades every light in my house to LED, not everything is a smart light, bulb, or switch. The bathrooms, dining room, kitchen, hallways, and spare bedrooms are where a manual switch is just easier to control the dumb lights. My bedroom has a ceiling fan with four light sockets integrated. I have four Philips Hue white ambiance bulbs in this ceiling fan so I don’t have to pull the chain or get up to turn on/off the lights at the switch.
Recently, I implemented an automation in the living room to better enhance the light experience. My biggest complaint was on the days where natural light was hard to come by, the living room would be dark. I could easily turn on the lights with my phone or home assistant, but I wanted to explore an automation that can turn on the lights based on the light available. My first thought was using an automation that can detect when it’s raining, and turn on the lights. That was easily defeated as here in Pittsburgh we have a lot of overcast days with no precipitation.
The automation I integrated that I’m still using today consists of the following, try to follow along:
I’m using a Philips Hue motion sensor that also has a built-in light meter. When this light meter falls below 2 lux, it triggers an automation within the Apple HomeKit system. Because of the complexity of this, I have to use a Shortcut to run the commands. Also, I only want to turn on the lights during certain times of the day, so it doesn’t turn on in the middle of the night. HomeKit doesn’t allow a lot of triggers, so I’m using the motion sensor as a trigger to kick everything off.
Each time motion is detected in the living room, only during the day > Run Shortcut 'Living Room Lights On' > Is light level <= 2 lux? Yes -> turn on living room lights No -> do nothing
What’s nice is this is a set-it and forget-it approach. Now when it’s gloomy outside, my lights come on.
Some other automations around lighting in my house
- When the doorbell detects motion, turn on porch light, only at night.
- When back patio door is opened, turn on patio lights.
- Manually triggered ‘Good Night’ scene turns all lights off.
- When a garage door opens, the garage lights turn on for 10 minutes.
Be sure to follow along for the next Smarter Home 2022 entry where I go over smart speakers.