February Update #2

Home automation, communication protocols, and devices

Finishing my last blog, I promised to discuss home automation in my next blog. Let’s do that now!

What is “home automation”? Why would I (or you) want it? What does it require and what does it cost? (I’m certain that you have additional questions! Feel free to email them to me and I’ll do my best to answer them quickly as possible.)

Home automation can be as simple as adding an automatic garage door opener to your home or as complex as adding smart device-controlled lighting, access, irrigation, security systems, and more! (There are refrigerators available today that have smart tablets inserted into the door to enable all the functions of a tablet [watching videos, listening to music, leaving notes for family members] and including enabling you to look inside the ‘fridge, via internally mounted video cameras, to quite literally “see” what other groceries you might need. Oh, to be more clear, I am referring to “see” what’s inside the ‘fridge while you’re in the grocery store using your smart phone as your viewer. Forget making a shopping list: just grab your smart phone and go. You can peek inside from your grocery store’s “Aisle 12.”)

Most of us aren’t ready for the digital refrigerator however, many of us might be ready to try digital lighting. I mentioned in my previous post that I recently installed LED “can” lights in my kitchen. There are ten lights twenty feet up. I do not want to change any more lightbulbs. (I don’t like heights and there’s a TALL ladder required to get up there.) These LEDs last for approximately ten years (or more) so I’m OK with the slightly higher price they command. And, they’re BRIGHT! (My wife, Georgi, said she could probably get a suntan while working in the kitchen. Hmmmmm…)

We want to control the brightness of the lights, so we had a smart dimmer switch installed. “Smart?”, you ask. Well, a regular dimmer requires walking over to the switch, turning it on and adjusting to the brightness desired for the moment. A smart dimmer, however, “talks” to my smart hub which, in turn, works with my Amazon Echo and Google Home Assistant. I don’t need to flip a switch, I tell Echo “Alexa [Echo’s ‘wake’ word], turn on kitchen lights!” Echo replies “OK!” and turns the lights on! I also installed some smart light bulbs that include speakers. They also work by talking to my smarthub through my smart home device (or my smart phone or tablet).

Time to get “tech-y”. Home automation requires connectivity. Many of us have wifi throughout our home. Some fo these devices can be used via wifi HOWEVER wifi is a finite amount of signal. Each device I connect to my wifi network uses a portion of the available signal and they compete for that signal. I might be working on a computer and on the Internet while my wife is watching a movie on Netflix™. My security system has four, motion-sensing cameras. If they get “awakened”, they too need some signal. Every working wifi device demands a share and each working device reduces the amount of signal each device can have. Wifi is not a great method for installing home automation devices. What then?

Bluetooth™, z-wave™, zigbee™, insteon™, thread™, and Apple Home Kit™ are alternatives to wifi to connect devices for home automation. Remember the introduction and subsequent wars of videotape home players? There were two players: Sony BetaMax™ and VHS. They fought. Ultimately VHS survived and Beta threw in the towel and faded away. That’s what is occurring now with home automation and wifi alternatives. Next blog, I’ll explain the differences among the strongest players.

The questions I asked at the beginning of this blog were: What is “home automation”? Why would I (or you) want it? What does it require and what does it cost? Here are the short answers. Home automation is connecting as many devices as you want to do as many things as you want with as little effort as you want. Why would I want it? Because technology is fun! Because connecting things to work automatically is fun (and can be VERY convenient). What does it require and what does it cost? It requires a smart hub and connectors. Smart hubs cost around $100.00. Devices range from $25.00 to a couple hundred depending upon what devices you want.

And, to complicate matters a bit further, home automation includes home security. There are many home security systems on the market. Some cost a few hundred dollars and are DIY installations and monitoring and others are “free” (via home security monitoring services) and carry a monthly fee that can range from $30.00 to more than $100.00.

What would you like to automate in your home? Or, why wouldn’t you want to automate at home? email me and let’s begin the conversation!

(Disclaimer: as always, I am in no way compensated for the opinions expressed herein. I earn no commissions. I am not paid nor sponsored by any of the item manufacturers, resellers or services. My blog is entirely my opinion for you to take with how ever many grains of salt you choose! Enjoy!)

February Update #

The holidays have past. The new year has begun. And I am (finally) getting around to publishing an update!

“Tech Talk”, a bi-monthly round-table discussion group that I host, is a forum wherein a group of neighbors and I get together to talk about all things “tech”. We, Baby-Boomers/Senior Citizens, have varying skills when it comes to using tech “stuff” (smartphones, tablets, smart home devices and the like) so we spend time together asking questions, sharing experiences and, in general, helping each other move forward along the digital highway.

Someone recently asked, on an alternative community neighborhood web site, a question about home security/automation systems, services and recommendations thereto. There were a few responses (use this, try that, avoid this one…) and a little more discussion. One of the members of the Tech Talk group sent me a message suggesting that I address the topic at an upcoming Tech Talk meeting. I agreed. Little did I know how little I knew about home security/automation systems!

Based upon my research, here’s what I learned: home security is either a monitored service for a monthly fee, installed and maintained (for a fee) by professionals OR it is quasi-monitored (you and your smart device[s] get notified…), installed and maintained by you. Where it gets even more interesting (and confusing) is when we start considering home automation!

What IS home automation? A garage door opener is a early form of home automation. Pressing the button on the remote in your car as you approach the garage opens the door automatically. What about when you leave home? When you’re a few miles away and you wonder “Did I close the garage door?” Today’s digital garage door automation devices allow you to “look” using your smart device and, if you DID forget to close it, you can close it with the touch a button on your screen as you continue driving rather than going back to check and close!

There are home automation devices that lock and unlock your home’s front door; that light up a room and play prearranged music when you walk into a room; tell you about the traffic report, weather report and stock market activity (if you want to know about all that). Did you notice that I said “tell you”? Devices like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Home Assistant can speak to you and they “understand” when you speak to them! Now THAT’S home automation.

Ask Amazon’s Echo, “Alexa, what’s the weather in San Francisco” and a pleasant-enough voice will explain the current weather conditions and forecast as well as commute traffic and the latest news if you like.

I recently installed a “smart hub” (details to follow later) the enables me to connect various home automation devices together such that I can tell Amazon’s Echo “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights” and it’s done! The lights are LED lights and V E R Y bright so I had a dimmer switch installed. It’s a smart dimmer switch and it’s now connected to my smart hub. So, I can say to Amazon’s Echo “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights to 45 percent” and not only does Alexa turn the lights on, she sees them to only 45% illumination!

Soon, I’m installing a home security video system with cameras both inside the home and at strategic points outside. The system connects to my smart hub. I’ll be able to talk to my smart device, ask whether or not there’s been any activity in or around my home, and get an answer or a look for myself.

Gotta’ L O V E this technology! What new tech have YOU tried lately?

(Home automation, communication protocols, and devices next post).

(My usual disclaimer: I am NOT compensated for any recommendation nor am I earning any income from any manufacturers, developers, resellers or others for my comments in these posts. The opinions expressed are mine [unless otherwise noted].