First, let us talk about what is home automation, what is the definition, and what do I mean when I reference it, as those three things are vastly different in my opinion. Home automation is strictly defined as: “…the use of one or more computers to control basic home functions and features automatically and sometimes remotely.” The generally accepted explanation and clarification of this as presented by Wikipedia is: “Home automation or ‘domotics’ is building automation for the home, also called a smart home or smart house. A home automation system will control lighting, climate, entertainment systems, and appliances. It may also include home security such as access control and alarm systems. When connected with the Internet, home devices are an abundant constituent of the Internet of Things.” For my purposes here, I am not going to be that broad. What I am referring to here are the parts of the house that can be enhanced or optionally controlled by some smart or web-enabled device. My microwave is computer controlled and has “smart” steam sensors that tell it when to stop warming certain foods, but while completely satisfying all criteria for smart home technology, it is not something I can control from a smartphone app, or tell my apple watch to manipulate, so I am not really considering it for this article. The same goes for my wireless water meter. While it does talk to the utility company and is in every way smart and web-connected, I can’t personally utilize it or affect it, so for the sake of this discussion, I really don’t care about it. I do mean to talk about lights and light controls, thermostats and HVAC controls, security, cameras, doorbells, smart locks, timers, web-enabled cooking devices, washers, dryers, vacuums and whole-home controls.
Now that we have defined what types of products we are discussing, I would like to discuss individual products that I have used, tested or still use. I will explain what I liked about them, how they helped, what their shortcomings were to me and my applications, and why I still use them or not. The first product category I really want to focus on is lighting.
Let me start by saying that no company has paid me to say any of this, none of the companies I will discuss in this article are sponsors, however, if they would like to be, I am open to suggestions. (Here’s looking at you Lutron!) Next, let me break down the lighting products I have used and build a bit of a timeline for you. When I first started trying to automate some of my lighting tasks, I went to the simple and readily available smart plugs in an attempt to control a few lamps around my house and workspace.
The first thing I experimented with was a Bluetooth switch from GE, and it was TERRIBLE. It only worked when you were in Bluetooth range, (i.e., close enough to reach over and flip a switch) secondly and the biggest issue with most lights and light systems, once you turn the lamp off manually, it is off, no matter what the smart plug does. Therefore, if you turn the lamp on with the plug, and your wife turns it off on the lamp, it is off, till you turn it back on on the lamp. To be very upfront about this, this is the single biggest complaint about every lighting control system I tested except one. Hue bulbs have the same problem, they work great if the plug or the switch is on, but as soon someone shuts it off manually, it is off till you turn it back on manually. This is a major deal breaker if you don’t live alone. I will discuss this more a bit later when I talk about the one lighting solution that fixes this problem.
The next lighting solution I tried was wifi smart plugs from iHome, and while they actually worked long range, they had the same shortcomings that the GE plugs had. If the device they controlled was turned off manually, they still don’t work. Also, a real downside of both types of smart plugs was, if you did want just to reach over and turn on the device, if the plug was off also, you had to turn that on first, which turns a simple action like flipping the switch on a lamp into a two-step process. (or more often a 4 step process as step one is trying the manual switch, and step two is then mentally moving past the utter confusion when that just doesn’t work into realizing you have to manipulate the smart plug before trying the manual switch again.) After realizing those downsides of any and all smart plugs, and choosing to NOT use them for any lighting control other than my Christmas tree, I later researched and settled on Hue light bulbs from Phillips. On a side note, the iHome smart-plugs worked supremely well to turn on my Christmas lights, even from a different state, which blew my babysitter’s mind and made my whole family believe I am a technological magician.
Back to the Hue lights, they are really nice, very advanced, and have a PILE of features that I love, but they have the same limitation that the plugs did, or actually, the exact opposite of it. When you put a Hue bulb in a light fixture and your wife comes along and turns the physical manual switch to it off, its computer, and its wireless connectivity is then off. Nothing short of walking over and turning the switch back on will make that light work, which became the deal breaker for these as a full solution also. They were better than the smart plugin that, if you have your lights on, go to bed, and use your phone, an app or your virtual assistant like Siri to turn them off, they are awesome. You can then use the automation to have them come on again, but as soon as the switch is off, they are useless till the switch is back on. This is where my real solution came in. In each case above, the failure point is when that manual physical switch is off. My solution, a smart switch.
Enter Caseta smart switches from Lutron. This is the perfect solution. Seriously, I love these, and since we have replaced basically every switch in our home with these, we have been thrilled with our smart lighting. Here is why. Every light switch always has power flowing into it all the time. The job of the switch is to control WHEN the power flows OUT of the switch. Since the Lutron smart switch is a permanent built-in switch that replaces your manual light switch, it is always powered, and therefore always online. They include a manual switch button, so if your wifi is down, the light still works, i.e., they fail secure. No matter if you use the app, the voice assistant, or the manual switch button, you are always interacting with the switch itself, and therefore with the primary control, so no matter how you do it, you can use any other method to undo it, and it is still in a ready state for the next use. These are so good, that once we installed them, we reinstalled the Phillips Hue bulbs also, that way, we can voice control the lights on, no matter how we left them. Once on, we can then voice-operate the myriad of Hue features. It also allowed me to build complex automation actions (scenes) in my Home app, and then fast button them to my lock screen or watch widgets. After this, we literally have the best of both worlds; perfect zero fail operation to turn the lights on and off automatically or remotely, followed by the full feature set of the Hue lights.
Next, and equally important is the price. I started this process of lighting automation with a Bluetooth smart-switch. I did that for 2 reasons. First, I started this process years ago, and that was really the most readily available product at the time. Secondly, I didn’t have a small trust fund or more to donate to the science of home automation, so I started with what was the cheapest. There were a few lessons to learn in that decision, and I will break those down for you soon, however, on the thought of price, to the average person, the Hue system is also surprisingly expensive, and if it hadn’t been for the mainstream acceptance of LED lighting and the massive cost increase attached to LED lighting, I might never have tried the Hue at all, after all, the white-only dimmable Hue bulbs are about $15 a piece, and the multicolor bulbs are almost $50. With standard dimmable Lead bulbs (not smart) costing about $9, these prices are significant, but not out of reach for most people who are motivated to try this type of product. On the other hand, the Lutron switches are about $100 each, which is about five times more than a standard light switch, and frankly, if I hadn’t been renovating my home electrical system and been dealing with a contractor that I respect and trust, I may never have even considered the Lutron switches at all. However, after discussing this with my contractor and seeing the demo of this product, I paid the extra money to have a few of these installed, (they are no additional installation cost over a standard switch as they fit in the place of the conventional switch). After having two lights in the house controlled by them, I realized that I had to have the rest also done and I ponied up the extra cash and had them installed. That was over a year ago, and the first lesson I learned in affordability for this system is that the switches don’t wear out, bulbs do. I have had the base kit for my Hue system for four years now, and I have replaced several bulbs. (One got thrown away during the remodel.. long story, and not for now) Each time a Hue bulb was replaced I really had to ask myself, how much do I use the Hue functionality in this location and can I get buy with a standard bulb. In most of the cases I really liked the Hue enough to pay the extra to replace it; however, that is a question I will NEVER have to ask about the Lutron switches.
Lastly, with this in mind, like everything I discuss here in money terms, let’s look at the cost per use, which in my opinion is the only real judgment of dollar value in any product. In case you are new here, let me brief you on what I mean by cost per use. I don’t care as much about what something’s total price is. I care about how much it costs divided by how many times I use it in its life. For example, if I buy a cheap laptop for $200, and it doesn’t do what I need so I never turn it on, then its cost per use is very high, however, if I buy a smartphone and pay $1000 for it, that seems like a lot. However, when I factor in that I pull that phone out and use it 100 times a day, its cost per use is pennies or less over its life cycle. With this in mind, when I look at the $100 Lutron switches being used several times a day for the next several years without fail, then I see a negligible cost per use. ( $100 switch divided by 4 uses per day 4×365 is about $0.07 per use) Compare this to the $50 Hue bulb which I used about 3 times a week for 3 years for mood or scene lighting, (50/(3x52x3)= $0.11) and we can see that the Hue is almost twice the cost per use as the Lutron at this point, in which the Hue was replaced after three years, and the Lutron switch is still going strong. Keeping this in mind, the part that cost the most initially, but is the most useful or the most durable is more likely the best value. I do not advocate using this premise as a reason to overspend your budget, but I would keep it in mind when making that budget initially. It may serve you better, in the long run, to wait a bit longer and then buy the best part for the job instead of rushing into the home automation market with big dreams and no plan.
Like I recommend for everyone, move with purpose, it is more efficient and provides a better experience in the long run. In the next chapter of this saga, I will discuss smart home and IOT security devices, what I have experienced and what has worked for me.