Bitten by the Home Automation Bug

Not quite two years ago, I wrote about a little timer I made using an Arduino microcontroller and a simple relay. The purpose was to turn a couple lamps on in my living room automatically at sunset, and off around 11:00pm. An old-fashioned timer doesn’t work so well because sunset changes every day, and the timer needed to be reprogrammed every couple of weeks.

That little project was fun, and the timer was quite useful for awhile. However, a few weeks ago, the relay burned out or something went wonky and the project died. I needed a replacement, and didn’t want to take time to rebuild my original timer.

Then I discovered the Belkin Wemo line. There are a few products in the Wemo line, but the one I was most interested in was a simple switched outlet. The advantage is that they are web connected, and can be turned on and off with an app from anywhere you have an internet connection. Among the simple programs is switching relative to sunrise and sunset. It would work nicely. However, I discovered something in the process that would work even better.


Smartthings is a multi-protocol automation controller. It requires a central hub, which costs $100, and can control many different things. The Wemo devices are among the things Smartthings will control. It will also control anything that uses the Z-Wave or Zigbee protocols, and there are a lot of things available. Z-Wave and Zigbee are different systems, but they are licensed by a lot of companies, so you’re bound only to the protocols, not individual brands.

There are other systems similar to Smartthings that will control many of the same devices. A popular one I keep coming across is Vera (Formerly MiCasa Verde). I was won over to Smartthings by the wider variety of products it will control, and the open nature, which allows people to develop their own programs for controlling things.

So what does this thing control, you’re probably wondering? So far, I’ve replaced many light switches in my house. I have only a dimmer or two left to replace (and what hurts is that I just replaced several dimmers with some nicer ones recently, but they weren’t smart). Incidentally, I’m also replacing as many light bulbs as I can too. I’ve really been impressed with the LED bulbs on the market now. They are much less expensive than they used to be, have good color rendition, and are (for the most part) more efficient than even CFL bulbs, and they look as nice as the old incandescents.

In addition to switches, I’ve added several smart light bulbs to the system. GE has a bulb that has Zigbee circuitry built into them. The lamps that used to be connected to my Arduino timer now have smart bulbs in them. The bulb itself is smart! I’ve put five of them on the main level of my house, in the living areas, and three outside in the front of the house. The interior lights come on 30 minutes before sunset and off at 11:00pm. The outside lights come on at sunset and stay on until sunrise. (I may change that, but for now I like them being on all night).

I’m fairly new to the world of home automation, and have more devices to replace and/or add to my system. Being able to turn lights on and off automatically at certain times of day is nice, as is the ability to turn lights off at night with an app from my bed. However, there is much more that can be done.

Once I get the lighting controls all changed over, I plan to add some sensors. There are multi-sensors that will do motion, temperature, humidity, and luminance. There are others that will sense presence (passive IR). Many people get their homes set up so that lights come on automatically when someone enters a room, and turn off automatically when they leave. The lighting level can be dimmed automatically after everyone is in bed. If you wake up in the middle of the night, and want a drink of water, the lights can come on as you make your way to the kitchen, already pre-dimmed to a fairly low level so as not to hurt your unadjusted eyes.

A couple sensors I have added already will monitor for moisture. I have two sump pumps in my basement to keep it dry. Back in 2010, one of them died (during a power outage no-less), and we flooded our basement, two inches of water in the entire basement. The flood sensors will notify me with an app notification and an SMS message if they sense moisture. They also measure temperature, and can be used (hypothetically at least) to assist a connected thermostat in setting temperature levels in the house.

Speaking of thermostats, they are another set of devices I plan to add to the system. My house has three heating zones, each with it’s own thermostat. I plan to add thermostats that can be controlled by the Smartthings hub. While I can’t control the temperature in individual rooms, I can set temperature sensors in individual rooms that will allow the system to better control when a zone is heated or cooled.

There are also presence sensors that know when people are home. iOS and Android phones can be presence sensors, so my phone and my wife’s phone are presence sensors. For now, they do nothing, but as I add more smart lights and switches, that will probably change. I’d like to have garage and entry lights come on automatically when someone arrives after dark. There are also more simple presence sensors that can be dropped in a child’s backpack, or hung from a dog’s collar to alert you when either comes or goes.

Another device I plan to upgrade my sprinkler controller before summer rolls around too. I’m just not sure yet which I want. I had been looking at the Sainsmart controller, which is internet-enabled, but I also learned of a system called “eve,” which has moisture sensors associated with it to better gauge just how much water the lawn needs. Sainsmart is just wifi enabled, but “eve” is specifically designed to work with Smartthings. The biggest issue is that “eve” isn’t yet in full production. I believe there is an 8-zone model available, but my system has nine zones, and I’d like a few extra in case I want to expand, or use the controller to automatically water my tomato plants. A 16-zone model is supposedly in the works, but not yet available; I don’t want to buy two systems to get all of the zones I want. If I remember correctly, the Sainsmart can be expended with modules.

The goal with an irrigation controller is to have something much smarter than on and off at given times on given days. I want it to check the forecast and skip watering if rain is expected. I also love the idea of sensors that can determine what the moisture level is at the root of the grass in different parts of the yard.

Still another device that I have already added is a web-controller for my garage door opener. Chamberlain has the system all within it’s own ecosystem, but someone wrote the code that you can add to your Smartthings system to control the garage door from within the same app. Now if the cleaning lady comes and we’re not home to let her in, we can open the door with the app.

Along similar lines, I plan to replace the deadbolts on various doors in the house with electronic ones. You’ve probably seen the ones with keypads on them that you can open with either a key or a pin code. Newer ones add app control. Many people set them up to automatically unlock the door when their kids get off the bus after school. The presence sensor in their backpack ensures that the door opens for the kid, though it could be tied to any number of triggers (time of day, for example.)

There’s so much more that can be done, but I’ve written enough already that I bet I’ve lost 90% of the readers that started reading this.

I’ll just end with one really cool system that integrates. If you’ve never heard of IFTTT (rhymes with gift), you really need to check it out. IFTTT stands for “IF This, Then That.” It’s a simple trigger system. It works with tons of different websites, services, and systems, including Smartthings. I have a recipe (as IFTTT calls them) set up so that when the weather changes to snow, turn on a switch that controls some heat coils on the roof. They are installed to melt snow on the bottom two feet of the roof in order to prevent ice damming in the spring. There are thousands of other things that can be done. You could have your living room lamp turn on when someone mentions you in a Tweet. You could have a Z-Wave alarm go off when you receive an email (why you’d want to is beyond me, but it can be done). IFTTT can be set up to send you a text message when get a private message on Facebook. Really, even if you never try home automation, check out IFTTT.

Some day after I’ve had the system going for awhile, and have more of the wrinkles ironed out, I’ll post an update. So far, I love this system!

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