Home automation do's and don'ts
September 1, 2021 | View PDF
In the decades since George Jetson previewed his push-button lifestyle, some of us have dreamed of a smart home of our very own. Yet this branch of technology has resisted the kind of progress that has put supercomputers in our pockets.
Most home automation products are hard to set up, they do not work and play well with others, and even the best devices are occasionally unresponsive. Like a desert mirage, visions of a push-button future always feel just out of reach.
Automation has crept into a few spaces in our house, with limited success. My wife and I increasingly depend on conveniences like voice-controlled lights, an automated thermostat, and a front door video camera. While these technologies deliver benefits, they still do not work as reliably as a simple light switch.
As a tech writer, I explore these products to share my experiences with readers. Home automation definitely has improved my quality of life. But I must make clear at the outset that all home automation products require considerable patience to install and maintain. Moreover, the network services needed to make home automation work create significant privacy concerns.
My mother still uses a traditional outlet timer to control a lamp in her living room. It is ancient technology, effortless to install, and it works every time. Thanks to Belkin Wemo switches, the lights in my house behave like something out of “Star Trek.” These switches are relatively inexpensive, and they can be installed by the homeowner. Unlike smart light bulbs, they do not require a dedicated network hub and they work with our existing floor lamps.
Connecting Wemo switches to your home Wi-Fi the first time should be easier. But once set up they work very well. I started with a single switch a few years ago, and now our house is full of them.
Wemo equipped lighting can be grouped into different scenes, triggered either by voice, an app tap, or configured with individual timers. The lights are smart enough to adapt to the different times for sunrise and sunset each day. I can also check any light’s status when I am not at home. If someone in your household has mobility issues, voice controlled lights can be a life changer. Two big thumbs up for Wemo switches paired with either an Amazon Echo or Apple HomePod.
Controlling the temperature
The next area we decided to tackle was indoor climate. We were using a simple, battery-operated thermostat that changed the temperature several times a day. It worked, sort of. We never could find a one-size-fits-all schedule that was comfortable.
Because our house is older, we needed professional help installing an Echobee3 Lite thermostat. Many owners can install it themselves, but we needed extra wiring. The Echobee does not have the most features, but it does the important job I wanted most: the ability to turn the heater on from my phone when I need to warm the house. No more frigid early-morning mad dashes downstairs to reset the thermostat.
We also had help installing a new front door light fixture that contained a video camera. The design of our house made this an especially useful upgrade, but this device requires a user account on a third-party website. As soon as I find a product that does not require an outside account and a monthly service fee, I expect to replace this fixture.
Choosing an ‘ecosystem’
The key to understanding the home automation landscape starts with recognizing that there are three popular network “ecosystems” available, and you should try to stick with a single one. The “big three” network systems are Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa and Google Home. The easiest way to minimize compatibility headaches is to pick one and stick with it. All three cover the basics, so the best choice is probably the company you are already familiar with.
Generally speaking, I think Apple has the best security and privacy technology. Amazon is the least expensive and has the best voice response. Google’s biggest strength is its integration with Android.
Once you select a network ecosystem, look for switches and other control devices compatible with that system. Before you purchase an automation product, you should make sure that it is compatible with the other devices you plan to use. Note that some products rely on specialized networks of their own. Many work with their own hubs plus at least one of the “big three.”
If you remember the 1990s when tinkering was a necessary skill for PC owners, then the current state of home automation will seem very familiar. If, however, you dream of an automated house that adapts to your lifestyle effortlessly, that remains a distant mirage.
Bob has been writing about technology for over three decades. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.