A journey in Home Automation

A while ago, after dabbling into automating some of my chores and looking into the possibilities, I stumbled into the domain of home automation. It grew on me quickly and soon I found myself sourcing parts in different countries and splicing them together in various ways as means to various ends. And it was fun, too! I then decided to put all my ideas into one place, to document the process and make a sort of work log of it, so I could recover from failure quickly. Remember that setting you just ‘’had to’’ get right in order for your system to work just right, that you looked for online for over two hours? Well, you sure won’t in a couple of months. Better write it down somewhere! Or so the reasoning went.

However, between deciding to do something and actually doing it there is sometimes that period of time that goes by when you have to do other things, not necessarily more important but more urgent. And so my ideas went on hold. I read, I experimented and I failed, then I read again and tried again and in the end I decided I could do more than just a worklog, and actually write some articles about the whole shebang. Sure, I’m no expert, but I believe those who are keep the knowledge to themselves because this business is quite lucrative. I do have some experience with microcontrollers though, and with setting up various control systems, as well as a background in telecommunications and software programming, and this is what I’d be doing if I could do whatever I wanted, so why not take a crack at it? So the idea stuck and I decided to write and post the articles on devtome so people could actually see them.

So without further ado, here is an introduction and an outline of Home Automation for the not-necessarily-technically-inclined. Chapter 2 deals with the technical overview and cloud security issues, as well as an overview of current technology and how it fits into the theoretical schema. Chapter 3 compares a couple of simple, off the shelf light control systems while Chapter 4 takes steps further and designs a simple home automation system from parts.

As day jobs are notorious in gobbling up time, though, and the realm of home automation is but a hobby to the author, the following information will arrive in sets which will be linked below as they are written. Bookmarking this page and checking back often is highly recommended!

Table of contents:

Chapter 1 - Overview, state of things and possibilities

Chapter 2 - Basic theory, cloud security and examples

Chapter 3 - A (theoretical) home automation system

Chapter 4 - A simple home automation system

Chapter 5 - A practical example using Tasker

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Chapter 1 - What is Home Automation?

Usually the domain of the wealthy, making menial tasks easier and quicker or just adding that special bit of panache to million-dollar mansions, the realm of Home Automation has lately begun making an appearance in ordinary homes. I still remember reading ten or fifteen years ago - and being more than just a little envious - of Bill Gates’ custom system that detected when people came in and automatically changed the lighting and music in each room in his home based on user preference; nowadays, most of the building blocks that can be used to do that are available for sale on Amazon. The technological advancements that have allowed for powerful yet cheap, small form factor computers and the growing availability of WI-FI enabled appliances have also become the driving force behind the infiltration of home automation technology into the daily life of the common people.

However, search the net for Home Automation and you'll find a lot of buzzwords and trademarks, different technologies that usually are incompatible with each other or enthusiast blogs full of technical jargon. A lot of information that, paradoxically, does not answer many questions, the most frequent one being - how do I get started?

The fact of the matter is that “home automation” is a category that can be really simple or really complex, depending on individual goal, so a simple answer might not be possible. Z-Wave, Insteon, Zigbee, X10 or Belkin? Arduino or Raspberry Pi? Cloud based or local? Custom solution or off-the-shelf? Many companies build “intelligent” appliances, from TVs to thermostats and key locks that know when you’re inside, but how do they all fit together (if at all?)

Some if not all of these questions can only be answered after planning things out. Determining the requirements should be a first step anyway, and doing so can shed a lot of light on determining a budget, a method and time allocation. This, however, becomes a daunting task when little information is available about the capabilities of existing technologies and the various tasks that can be pursued.

Thus, the following series of articles means to be a starter guide into the world of Home Automation. The intention is to help eliminate some of the clutter that surrounds this subject, focus on the possibilities of currently available technology and point the way to further study. The articles should dispense some information about the current state of the technology and they will strive to give ideas about planning a system. They will give some examples of technologies, solutions and physical implementations. In conclusion, this series will contain a walk-through example for planning a modest but powerful home automation system, including one hands-on example that the author has used and improved upon. Your mileage will undoubtedly vary - different people will have different requirements, but the main ideas will pertain to most implementations and should be a good starting point for further individual study.


Home automation usually refers to using a computer to automate various tasks. If you do it repeatedly, chances are you could probably automate it in some way. Technology now exists to connect to and control most things that run on electricity, and individual skill and ingenuity (as well as spare time available) are some of the limiting factors of what can be achieved. Cash on hand is usually the other limitation, but lately, as more companies have started pushing for “intelligent <insert appliance name here>”, household items are easier and cheaper to control than ever.

However, “home automation” in this case refers to more than just automating tasks. A more complex system usually does more than just control, as it is also responsible for monitoring sensors, making decisions, informing the final user via telecommunications networks and allowing for remote control. It may include centralized control of lighting, for comfort or energy efficiency, security locks or gates, appliances or other systems. It may monitor hygrometers planted in the garden, and turn the sprinklers on whenever the soil humidity drops below a certain threshold; one project lights up the stairs to the house in colors that range from blue for freezing temperatures to red for hot summer evenings. A more advanced system can know not only when a room is occupied, but by whom, and adjust the lighting and thermostats according to user preference, which is what Bill Gates already had in the ‘90s.

State of things

After the microcontroller was invented, electronic control of various household items became cheaper, and in the 1990s monitoring and remote control technologies were combined by the building services industry worldwide to support the activities of the home (for the few that could afford it) or the office. Despite growing interest, the systems were still clunky, unstandardized and lacked a simple protocol so they were left as luxuries for the rich.

The following years brought on the accelerated miniaturization of computers, sensors and actuators and widespread adoption of a few communication protocols. As WI-FI became the norm in many homes and people started using their devices away from their rigid desks, the desire for more comfort arose as well. Further miniaturization of computers brought on renewed interest as command and control systems become more and more affordable and versatile, starting with high-end smartphones that pack more punch into a pocket-size slab of silicon than a whole roomful of hardware from the year 2000 and ending with the 25 dollar Raspberry Pi computer on a PCB that can run most of the same software a full-fledged, thousand dollar IBM blade server can (though, admittedly, much slower).

Lately, as WI-FI has become ubiquitous and the Internet of Things seems to catch on, mainstream companies are keen to announce their latest “smart” appliance into a market that is becoming more and more proprietary and segmented. Off the shelf solutions from Belkin, Philips and other household names lower the cost of entry for consumers, though the lack of a unified protocol still makes integration difficult and custom solutions are sometimes required. However, there is plenty of consumer interest as 1.5 million home automation systems were installed in the US in 2012 and it is estimated that by 2017 more than 8 million will have been shipped. 1)

Thus, there seems to be a lot of room for growth. More and more appliances are becoming smart, like the WI-FI enabled, LED light bulbs that have been becoming available lately or smart TVs that can be easily connected to smartphones and tablets through various apps. Integrated systems installation is on the rise and there are many new options coming from technology companies that are expanding their areas of expertise. While many produce the same kind of equipment (think LED light bulbs or smart switches), their systems are not usually compatible, though even that is changing. Some offer APIs, or can easily be hacked for more control, others do not, and it is up to the user to decide which is better for their home; however, the recent drive towards using WI-FI or internet enabled bridges for home automation is already bringing the dream of affordable home automation closer. And, as it turns out, we can already build a system the way a PC might be built - cheaper, with parts from different vendors, under a common command and control system.

What’s possible

Availability and affordability are all well and good, but just what can be done with home automation equipment? Is it worth the investment of time and sometimes money? How much does it cost?

The simple answer is: it depends. But however big (or small) your home is, it can probably benefit from home automation, even if it’s something as small as turning up the lights when you wake up and turning on the radio.

To better understand the capabilities of home automation, one needs to understand that today is a golden age, as sensors, actuators and computers become cheaper and cheaper. Imagination truly is the limit to what can be achieved, though prowess with tools and ingenuity is sometimes a game stopper. In other words, if you think it, and you don’t have two left hands, you can probably build it with today’s consumer grade home automation gear. But just what can you do?

Here’s a list of things you could design and build, in no particular order.

  • automate your lights to turn on at dawn/sunset, or remotely, or on a schedule. Or better yet, turn the lights on when you get home (and connect to the home wifi)
  • set the washing machine to start two hours before you wake up to go to work. Then just put the clothes on the line and go to work
  • set the coffee maker to start when you wake up (fresh coffee before your third snooze!)
  • make a temperature warning system - a set of LED lights on the drive-way that change color according to the temperature outside, deep blue for freezing to red for summer heat
  • open the garage door when phone connects to home WI-FI (or via voice command!)
  • feed pets when you’re away from home. Or water the garden
  • open blinds on a schedule, or when it gets sunny or hot. Conversely, close blinds automatically whenever there’s a storm warning
  • link your home entertainment center to the lights to turn the lights on temporarily whenever you pause the movie, or dim the lights whenever your system starts.
  • make a system that reads coordinates from pets and builds maps of their travels during the day
  • make a system that enables and disables entertainment systems in the house so your kids can actually do their homework

The skinny is that in the end, you could probably do anything you set your mind to. If it’s repetitive, you could probably make it automatic. If it’s not, but depends on some finite number of conditions, a computer could monitor them and make a decision. And, thankfully, nowadays computers are a lot less expensive than ten years ago, and a lot smaller too, and things are just getting interesting in the home automation department, with new projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo all the time. How that can help you design and implement your dream home system we’ll find out in the next section.

Continued in Chapter 2

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