DIY Smart Home: A Year-in-Review

I remember watching Star Trek reruns as a young man and hoping for the day when technology would be like what I saw on TV.

Fast forward to today. That time is here in many ways. Over the past year-and-a-half, I have embarked on a journey of a DIY smart home implementation, mostly just to see what is and is not possible and what may be done for a “reasonable” price.

My Equipment List (so far):

As you can see, I have acquired many products. I have been testing and living with some of them for more than a year now.

I essentially have total control of all these devices with my voice or my iPhone. I have created some routines that are “automagic” and just work on their own without me having to do anything, and others that we control on an as-needed basis.

As an example of something automatic, the motion sensor in the bathroom controls the light-bulb over the toilet. Depending on the time of night it will turn on red and at a low power of 10% so as not to ruin night vision. Super handy for a midnight bathroom break!

Other routines include things like the bias lighting for the TV turning on automatically if the TV is on and it is dark outside, and automatically writing a unlock/lock entry log to a Google Docs spreadsheet and sending a notification to my phone.

(By the way, these are my personal opinions and do not reflect those of Kraft Kennedy, nor should they be taken as an endorsement of any product.)

The Good
The technology works well and reliably once connected. It is also fun and extremely convenient.

It basically breaks down into three categories: security, convenience, and entertainment, with most products falling into two or more of the categories. One small example would be our front door, which automatically locks at 10:00 pm so I don’t have to remember to do it before bed. If I’m not sure, I can ask Alexa (via the bedroom Echo Dot) if the front door is locked. If I leave the house, the front door will automatically lock if I’m more than 1000 feet from the house (security & convenience).

Most products have an application for both iPhone and Android platforms, which makes them relatively easy to set up and configure, and their interoperability works with automation routines like Stringify or IFTTT. A lot of the products are integrated with Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or Apple Home Kit, but the majority work with Alexa. With Smart Hub integration, you may extend functionality to Alexa that it may not have otherwise.

This make it easy to say things like “Alexa, turn on the TV.” She will turn on the TV and surround speaker and tune it to your favorite channel.

Or you can say, “Alexa, bedtime” and she will turn on the bedroom light low at 25%,  turn on the bathroom light at a low level, and turn everything else in the house off. Once in bed, you can have Alexa turn the lights off as well.

Some products are rock solid. I have never had to do anything to the WeMo light switch that I wired in the kitchen. The reason I went with this product is that we have six spotlights. While it would have been expensive to replace each bulb, I gained application, voice, and physical control just by a replacing a light switch. The best part is that it just works.

The Bad
Because each device has its own application, the applications are constantly being updated, either for new updates to the software or to support the phone OS. This means that you get signed out of applications all the time and it is aggravating to sign back in to use the application. You’ll want to be using a password manager (you should be anyway, for security purposes) or these applications will drive you crazy.

Your phone battery life will shrink significantly because of all these applications running. You will have to observe and learn which cause problems and which do not. This also changes frequently because of the updates.

My current worst offender is the Nexx garage door application. It gives you the option to set the garage door to automatically open when you are within a certain proximity of your house (which is convenient because you can then drive straight into the garage with no delay), but if I don’t log out of the application after I’m home, my phone battery is drained much too quickly.

Sometimes competing products are not what they seem. My Eufy Genie smart speakers are an alternative to the more expensive Amazon Echo Dots. They perform almost as well, but the reduced price comes at the cost of not having the proximity detection technology that the Echo products have. The result is the Eufy always responds, whereas only the closest Amazon product responds. Very annoying when two devices start asking you questions or indicating that they did not “get that.”

Finally, these smart products are generally much more expensive than a standard door lock or light bulb.

The Ugly
After a power outage my WiFi light bulbs reset back to a default ON state (who thought that was a good idea?). So, several times in the middle of a stormy night when power went out and on, I woke up to find my bedroom lights on and blazing at 3:00am (my WeMo light switch in the kitchen did not turn on though–kudos for staying off as a default state). It has happened enough that I had to create an automatic routine to turn off all lights with one touch of the button and just hope that the Smart Hub has come back online after losing power (solved with a UPS).

If your home has poor wiring, these devices may not work as planned.

Initially I wanted to wire a WeMo switch into the bathroom, but because of the wiring setup, a couple of the outlets would not have power unless I left the light switch in the on position. This did me no good, so I had to work around it with the motion sensor and the WiFi bulb, but it would have been easier and less expensive if I could have just replaced that switch.

You will eventually go down a rabbit hole of having to buy “just one more thing” to make the DIY smart home that much better. At some point, you may need to upgrade your home WiFi because of all the devices that need WiFi access and bandwidth. I had to invest in a whole home mesh WiFi system, which was expensive at the time, although they have since become cheaper. You will also want to buy uninterruptible power supplies so you do not have to wait for your smart hubs and other controller gear to restart when power flickers.

So was it, and is it, worth it?

Absolutely. The convenience outweighs any short-term problems and expenses. 

I’m sure plenty of you got at least one home automation gift during the holidays, so enjoy and Happy New Year!

If you’re interested in adding automation to your daily work routines, we can help–drop us a line to see how tech can help you be more efficient in many small ways.