Originally published on Netskills voices

At the last SuperMondays meetup, Steve Jenkins talked about his personal experiments with home automation. These practical experiences seemed like a nice follow on from Chris’ recent post on the broader issues of the Internet of Things and the environment.

Why automate your home?

Home Automation

Starting with the idea that “it would be cool to automate my house”, Steve set about looking for some more legitimate justifications, such as energy saving. Having compiled a long list of reasons though, the only ones he felt he could honestly stand by were “Because it’d be cool and because I can.”

Not to dismiss the potential of home automation for more valid reasons, but he felt that personally he quickly became a little blasé about the data, for example on energy consumption. While it was interesting to look at, it didn’t necessarily encourage him to change his behaviour.

That’s something we’ve found with our work with Newcastle University on energy monitoring of IT, where simply collecting the data is less than half the battle. As Chris mentions in his post, there is also the issue of offsetting the power used by your newly connected devices that report to your always-on server.

How to do it?

So, having revised his expectations of what he would attempt, he bought a LightwaveRF system (which to my surprise at least, is available at high street DIY stores) to link up lighting, electrical & heating systems.

Installing this was relatively straightforward, but he found the interface a little limited and awkward to use. So, like any good DIY-er, he set about improving it. Having got access to the API, he built his own web-interface and an Android app that gave a nicer user experience, but also extended the built-in features. That included geofences, so actions would be triggered automatically as he left his house or came back home. He also used NFC to let him trigger actions by simply swiping his phone over a tag.

He estimated that he’d spent about 2 days coding and about £400 on hardware to get a basic, but useful system up and running. There are more ‘off the shelf’ solutions available, such as SmartThings, but these tend to be more expensive and proprietary.

DIY or plug and play?

For someone like this speaker, who understands how the systems behind these kits work and the potential risks of using them, this was a fun DIY project to try. What worries me more is the mass-marketing of home automation kits that you just plug in and forget about. While that offers users convenience, it has a presumption of built-in, ongoing safety and security that not everyone will appreciate will likely have caveats.

A few horror stories were mentioned, but he took a pragmatic view of his project. He’d only connected systems that wouldn’t pose a risk if compromised. If they were, he’d simply unplug them. Though he did plead with the audience, “Please don’t hack my house.”

And his final comment in response to the question has it made a difference to how you live? “Well, it’s made me more lazy.”

Back to the DIY analogy for home automation – do you prefer to make stuff yourself, assemble from flat-pack or have it delivered fully-assembled? Do you think it is worth automating some or anything in your house and if so, what would you be prepared to learn to do and to maintain to do so?

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