I started to build out my smart home last fall, and here’s where things stand today.
Step 1: a Smart Thermostat
I decided on an ecobee 3 pro for two reasons.
At least for the moment, ecobee appears to be an independent company. Nest is owned by Google, and the newer ecobee 4 has alexa built in. I’m not quite ready to let allow either of those companies to install a microphone in my home. The ecobee 3 does work with homekit which is the big-5 ecosystem I choose to participate in.
I thought the “pro” model of the ecobee 3 had an occupancy sensor built into the theromostat itself, and that led me to believe it would do a better job of figuring out when I’m home or away and setting the climate accordingly.
In my apartment I have a utility closet off the hall between the kitchen and bathroom where the furnace sits. My thermostat was previously on the wall in the bedroom, near the front entrance to the apartment. I didn’t like this, so I decided to put my thermostat in the bathroom-kitchen hallway, which was great beacuse it made it simple to run a new 5-wire thermostat cable down the wall and across to the furnace’s control board. The old thermostat location did make sense in that I’m most concerned with the temperature in the bedroom, which is in use often and the furthest room from the furnace, so I added an ecobee room sensor in place of the old, mercury filled thermostat.
I could have run new thermostat wiring up into the attic and three rooms over to drop it down where the old thermostat was, but it would have been more work and I didn’t want to wake up each morning staring at the thermostat. Having it a bit hidden out of the way, co-located with the furnace itself, seemed more appropriate. The whole point of having a smart thermostat after all is to automate comfort, and if I need to change it make it as easy to tweak from my phone as it is to twiddle the thermostat.
I do really like the skeumorphic rotating interaction design of the Nest and I wish it wasn’t immediately disqualified from consideration by the fact it’s a big-G service.
Step 2: Smart Lighting
Here I have implemented two systems: Lutron Caseta and IKEA Trådfri.
To start out I only had one light that is directly controlled by a wall switch in my small place, and it was in the central living room. I wanted to be able to dim the light, and also have a second control on the wall between the living room and bedroom, close to the front door. The existing switch is at the doorway into the kitchen.
The Caseta system worked perfectly for this - the kit I bought came with a gateway, a dimmable switch, and a second, wireless switch. It took 5 minutes to turn off the breaker and install the new dimmer receptacle in the wall, about 15 minutes to get the gateway plugged in and the whole thing set up with my phone and homekit, and 5 seconds to adhere the second switch right where I wanted it.
Unfortunately, that’s the only spot where I can put one without doing more extensive re-wiring. The office, kitchen, bathroom, porch, and back stairs all have pull chain operated lights. The bedroom has a wall switch, but it leads to an old ceiling fan with two pullchains that operate the lights and fan separately. Having a smart switch would (1) blow out the fan’s motor and (2) be annoying when I try to automate the lights and instead come home to a fan going full speed.
That’s where the Trådfri lights come in. They wire into a ‘hot’ light socket and connect to “control devices” over a low-energy wireless mesh network (“zigbee”). The control devices available for lighting are a five-button (one big button for on/off, two for bright/dim, and two to move through different “mood” settings in the bulbs) and a twist-to-dim dial. Both come with magnetic cradles that can be taped to the wall with the included strong adhesive strip or attached with screws + anchors. The remotes then click magnetically into the cradle, which is important because the remote needs to be paired with the controlling lightbulbs by holding them within 5 cm and pressing the “link button”. It’s also nice to be able to move the remote around.
So to describe that setup, going back to front: the bulb in my back stairway is a trådfri bulb paired to a motion sensor that’s on the wall at the top of the stairs. When I walk inside the sensor detects movement and cues the light to turn on. The same sensor is also paired to the light on the porch at the top of the stairs, so I can walk up and into my mudroom-ish space while carrying things (usually my bike and whatever else) without needing to fumble for a light switch. This is great. I don’t actually have a switch for that group of lights right now, but it might be nice. If I’m looking for something on the porch at night I have to step out to the top of the stairs and gesticulate wildly until the motion sensor catches on, which can be a pain. Angling the motion sensor might fix the problem, as would buying a second motion sensor and placing it more directly in the porch.
Alas, my kitchen light is still dumb and controlled by a hanging chain in the middle of the room. I am torn as to whether I should rewire it to a wall switch and install a Caseta or wait for Ikea to release their cool LED light panels in the US and use Trådfri. (The existing light fixture uses a weird 360º circular CFL bulb so I can’t just drop in a fun new smart bulb.)
Moving into the bathroom the single light fixture above the vanity has trådfri bulbs and a circular dimmer on the wall just inside the door. The dimmer is also connected to a small fan on an IKEA control outlet, so turning on the lights also triggers the fan and starts moving air around which is great for keeping the humidity down. The mount for the dimmer’s cradle broke almost immediately, so once every twenty times I try to operate this control it dislodges from the wall, then I drop the dimmer, and it rotates wildly which causes the light to go a bit crazy. This is maybe the biggest “Smart home” problem I have, and I could fix it but I’m afraid that removing the adhesive will pull plaster off the wall so I’ve decided to live with it for now.
The office has another single ceiling fixture with a t-bulb and a dimmer, this time screwed into the wall. I bring all my plants in to overwinter next to a north-facing window on a metal shelf in here, and it’s lit by some led strip lighting (red/blue, so supposedly good for plants?) that is hooked into a second control outlet that’s on a timer for 7am-9pm.
The bedroom overhead fan has two trådfri candelabra bulbs connected to two remotes - a dimmer on the wall and a pushbutton next to the bed. It’s nice to be able to control the lights from both locations. At the outset I also set this up to do a simluated “sunrise” on a timer and wake me up, but I think my east-facing windows do a better job of that.
I really like the tactile feel of the dimmer switches. They more than make up for my disappointment with ecobee’s less accommodating touch-and-swipe to change the temperature interaction. I wish the dimmer switches were also push-able - pushing them would turn them on and off, and turning them would change the brightness. I have had a few problems with the control devices forgetting what they’re supposed to be doing or the gateway losing specific bulbs, but it has been pretty good. I am afraid however to turn off any of my breakers, worrying that it will disrupt the zigbee mesh and confuse everything, leaving me in the dark.
The gateway is on the exact opposite side of the apartment from the back stairway bulb, and at first they had trouble communicating. So did the bulb in the bathroom, adjacent to the stairs. But the mesh networking eventually settled out and seems to be working great.
I think I want a similar motion sensor setup in the basement, where I also only have one switch-operated light and three pull-chain bulbs so I might be making a trip back to IKEA soon.
Step 3: a Smart Toilet
Sorry I’ve made you read this far in mock seriousness, as this post is mostly a joke, and the mocking punchline is “bidet”. I have always been embarassedly fascinated at the idea of using a water fountain to clean up after using the toilet. At one point I installed a cheap cold-water-only spraying toilet seat controlled by a plastic dial and used it for a bit. I didn’t actually save any toilet paper, and probably actually used a lot more to dry my sopping wet underside than I would have to do a standard wipe. I experimented with using cut-up rags to clean up afterwards but always questioned how sanitary that was. To me the key to the experience has to be the heated blower built in to the fancier bum washers…
So the next step on my smart home journey is to get a seat-heating, blow-drying, butt-cleaning, deluxe toilet seat. I’m waiting until there is one on the market that’s remotely controllable from my phone, as who sits on the toilet these days without spending 15 minutes thumbing through their virtual worlds anyhow? (reminder: this part of the guide is not 100% serious)
When I do I’ll add an amazon affiliate link here and hopefully start making “passive income” out the wazoo. Pun intended, as mine will be sparkly.
Step 4: a Robot Vacuum
I also got a knockoff brand roomba a few months ago, and it is fantastic. The only reason I add it here as a surprise #4 is that it lacks smarts/connectedness so I am not sure if it fully qualifies as “smart”. The wifi-enabled bots are still too expensive.
Dumbness aside, every day it is programmed to turn on at 10:30 (usually after I’ve left for work) and bump around my apartment pulling up dust and hair and food that’s been dropped on the kitchen floor until it gets stuck on something laying around (usually the bathroom rug) or exhausts its battery and slowly probes its way home to the charger. I have the charging base plugged in out of sight under my bed, so when the robot succeeds in its endeavor - probably 5 days out of 7 — the only trace it leaves is the cleanliness of my floors. It works fine on my wood and tile surfaces and even does a great job of keeping my thick living room carpet clean, better actually than my real vacuum which I am too lazy to use more than once or twice a month.
I need to remember to dump out the small dustbin every few days, and clear out the rolling brush and spinners about once a week. Which is very manageable. 100% I will get another when this one dies.