DIY or Pro Integration?
As your smart home continues to grow, it can reach the point where you may feel like you are losing instead of gaining control. That simple home automation project to turn a few lights on or off at your command has morphed into a multi-room confusing system.
Perhaps you have taken advantage of the incremental, step-by-step benefits of DIY evening or weekend projects. Maybe your budget has limited your purchases to individual or small sets of devices that work well alone but not together.
Don’t be alarmed or upset; it is very common for a system that grows organically step-by-step to end up with “islands of automation” - separate systems that work fine as intended but cannot work together.
It’s not a case of your thermostat and lighting system being anti-social; more likely they are simply shy and don’t know how to introduce themselves and talk to each other.
One of the benefits of hiring a systems integrator or dealer is designing and purchasing a system where every element is planned in advance and coordinated to work together.
It used to be an “all or nothing” hard choice - buy a super expensive system from Control4 or Crestron that runs smoothly or buy a bunch of unrelated gadgets that end up in a crazy setup that even Rube Goldberg would find hard to understand.
But fortunately there are alternatives to going the professional route that help. You won’t end up with a “lean, mean, automation machine”, but you can get more of your isolated devices or subsystems to work together for the greater good (of your home!) if you are willing to put in the time and effort.
Hero or Zero?
Products and systems from a single company are usually automated and integrated by design without any special effort. So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the best way to avoid the challenge of integration is to simply purchase everything from one company. If one company can provide everything you want, then don’t overlook the simplicity of this approach.
Many of us are used to buying “hero” products - the best single product for the job at hand. We reward ourselves for the hours of research comparing specs, features, user reviews, and feedback to determine the best product at the right price.
That’s fine when each product stands alone, but when you want them all to work together, it might be reasonable instead to compromise on individual features. If you have a Nest thermostat, you’ll find it a lot easier if you also buy your security camera and video doorbell from Nest too.
Maybe you have a Ring doorbell (they have been the market leader and sold tons of them), but like the much better video quality and features of the Nest Indoor our Outdoor cameras.
Now you have a much tougher choice - do you buy everything from one company, even though not all the products are “best in class” but they work together seamlessly, or do you continue to buy the best single products and then try to link them together?
Sometimes a company is great at building one product, but terrible at building other products. The same company might have some products that are real duds.
Do you avoid using the hero because they have the zero, or do you pick and choose carefully hoping to mix-and-match later?
Let’s Hook up!
All is not lost - there is a solution to this problem and it is free or low cost. In technical terms, what you want to do is integrate, or link, multiple products to each other. Actions and reactions. Cause and effect. Command and response.
It can be called many things but the idea is to combine multiple devices or services together to provide an otherwise unobtainable result.
Here’s a few examples of possible integration:
With young children in your household, you want to receive a text message when they arrive home from school (the front door opens).
When you turn on the overhead light in your family room, you want three other table lamps to also turn on automatically.
When the humidity or room temperature is above a certain level, turn on your air conditioning or humidifier even if you are not home.
Independent Hubs and Controllers
One way to accomplish this link-up of products from multiple companies is to use a centralized controller.
These hubs (usually hardware) will have the physical interfaces and drivers (low-level software) to control a wide range of devices from multiple manufacturers.
There are both DIY and commercial products and they are available in a wide range of prices and capability. Choosing one of these systems that works with all or most of what you already own can be a great way to achieve an integrated system without starting over from scratch.
Unlike the basic hubs that come with some smart home products, these controllers are not limited to one type of product or one brand of equipment, so your mix and match options are more likely to include everything you already own or plan to purchase.
Often, however, when you buy one of these 3rd party control systems you will be replacing the app or software that comes with each individual product.
Depending upon your point of view, this can be good or bad. Instead of juggling 5 or 10 apps, one for each device, you’ll use a single app that controls everything.
The flaw with this approach is that most of the manufacturers of these systems are not able to devote the resources and attention to make world-class software. Their app is functional, but may be ugly, hard to use, or simply lacking in features.
Since writing software linkage/adapters (“software device drivers”) for every smart home device being made is a herculean task, you’ll find only a few major brands of products are supported. In reality, these systems are only a partial solution and you’ll still need to use other apps for some of your devices.
But this is worth considering - if you have limited your purchases to major brands of devices, you might find it a good fit. For some of you, this might be the right solution.
Of course, your friendly smart home consultant (cough, cough, me!) is always available to help guide you through the selection of the most appropriate control system and options.
Buying a controller or hub can still be an intimidating decision and you might want to explore other options - especially if your smart home system is not large enough to justify the expense but has grown to where you really want more integration and capability and do the work yourself as a DIY project.
The most common alternative to a centralized hub is a distributed approach where each control point (smartphone, switch, or voice assistant) communicates directly with the device you wish to control.
Let’s take the example of a lamp dimmer that you control.
Using an app on your smartphone, you can dim or brighten the lamp, or turn it on or off.
The app on your phone communicates directly with the module controlling the lamp.
The communication, over Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or other method is going directly from your phone to the device and then back. (In datacom terms this is called peer-to-peer communications.)
Although this works simply and easily, there are a few significant limitations. You must physically be close to the device you wish to control, and you can’t set up automated actions because everything has to go through your phone.
Internet Connected Cloud Solutions
Cloud software “bridges the gap” and limitations of peer to peer connections by connecting every device through the Internet to a centralized server.
By looping everything through the cloud, you gain a lot of flexibility and added capability.
There is a trade-off — cloud-connected services means you will be SOL when your Internet connection is down. There can also be a noticeable delay as the round-trip time to send a command through the Internet to a central server and then back again can slow things down.
Here’s a fun fact: The widely used and very popular Amazon Echo voice assistant and the Google Home voice assistant are both cloud-connected systems. - everything they do requires a round-trip through the Internet.
Technically, they record your voice command locally, but the audio recording is sent through the Internet to a remote data center where a vast array of servers working in parallel perform the computing intensive task of recognizing your speech and converting it into meaningful commands and responses.
I’m going to describe a few cloud-connected services that are available for DIY use at no cost.
Software “Glue” to Link Devices Together
There are two software services that provide an excellent capability to link together all your smart home devices and more. These products consist of both Internet connected services and apps for smartphones (both Apple iPhone and any Android phone).
Although they each use different terminology, the concept is the same: they provide a set of software building blocks that each do one specific thing and you can link them together to accomplish almost anything you want.
Some of these building blocks control devices you own (“Turn your Lutron Caseta lights on or off”), get information from your devices (“Get notified when your Nest thermstat switches to ‘away’ mode”), or communicate with you (“Get email or text messages when certain things happen in your home”).
By combining these building blocks in a mix-and-match way, you can build sequences of automation to do really interesting things such as “Turn on the outside lights 15 minutes before sunset” or “Turn off all the house lights when I leave home”.
These services allow you to:
Build sequences of actions with multiple devices that you can control with a single command
Build actions that automatically run when a condition (“a trigger”) happens without you having to do anything yourself.
Run these actions or automations even if you are not home or do not have your smartphone with you (depending upon the hardware involved).
Without further ado, here are the two services I recommend exploring along with, in their own words, a description of what they do:
IFTT (www.ifttt.com) - IFTTT is the free way to get all your apps and devices talking to each other. Not everything on the internet plays nice, so we're on a mission to build a more connected world.
Stringify (www.stringify.com) - Change Your Life By Connecting Every Thing. Connect all your physical and digital Things together in one place so you can take better care of your self, your family, your home or just get more done.
Don’t be intimidated
There is some lingo and new stuff to learn, it really isn’t that hard. The easiest way to get started is to read their introductory information and tutorials. Resist our normal temptation to skip past everything and dive right in.
Another great way to learn is to copy their examples. There are lots of sample automation routines already created. You can try them out and then slowly adjust them to match your own needs.
There are lots of examples and tutorials that you can find on their website and elsewhere on the Internet. I’m purposely not trying to teach you how to use these services - many other people have already written great articles and demonstration videos.
My goal has been to introduce the concept and get you interested in taking a look and seeing if it might work for you in your own smart home.
It’s Your Move
Have you tried IFTTT or Stringify? Let me know what you think - just click ‘reply’ and write a quick note.