i’ve been working on this over the last year and I’m just finally getting around to writing it up.
I’m quadriparetic, use a wheelchair with limited hand function. So home automation isn’t a hobby for me. I want to get maximum return on investment, with a pretty small budget, and I want everything to be working and practical from the beginning.
At the same time, my personal belief (and this is just a guess) is that while there will be several good candidates for plug-and-play home automation systems that will do most of what I want for under $5000 by the summer of 2017, The reality is that there is no system yet that will fully meet my requirements.
(edited to add we did finally get this by 2019, more details when I get around to updating this for 2020. )
There are existing “environmental control systems” designed for people in wheelchairs, but they tend to cost about $10,000 per room, and I was hoping to spend a lot less.
So back in November 2014, I decided to set a budget of $1500 for phase 1. This would be stuff I would be willing to throw out completely and start over in the fall of 2016. I just wanted to get enough value out of it to justify the phase 1 money for the first two years.
During that two years a lot has changed. Smartwatches and various voice technology options Have gotten both better and cheaper. Some hub based systems have come and gone. Smart lighting has gotten cheaper and more interesting. But my project is pretty much on track.
Where to start?
Because of my time and money budget, and the fact that I honestly did think I might want to throw everything out and start over in two years, I didn’t sit back and design my ideal perfect home. Or try to replace every switch in the house. Instead, I looked for specific use cases that would give me an immediate value without a huge investment.
So I started with three things where I have the most physical trouble on a daily basis
One) The front door lock. Man, I can’t even begin to list the problems I had with this before we got a smart lock. I had problems myself opening the door. I have levers on most of the interior doors, and a service dog to help me, but I didn’t want the dog to be able to open the front door by himself. And I didn’t feel hundred percent certain that housemates and their friends would remember to lock it every time. I also have home health care workers that come and go, many of whom do not have smart phones. Nor did I necessarily want to give a sensor device to all of them.
After a lot of research, I ended up choosing a Z wave combination lock with auto lock. Initially I combined it with a zigbee motion sensor so that I would have a touchless switch inside the house. Plus the SmartThings hub to tie them together. Everybody else could use a combination or the turnbolt.
This was the first project we did, total cost around $400 counting the hub, everybody loved it, and it was immediately practical.
Two) I created a pathway of lights from the living room to my bedroom. Since I’m in a wheelchair, I can’t easily feel my way over to a switch on the wall in the dark even if I can do the switch when I get there. And I can’t send my dog back three rooms from where we are to start turning off switches. He can do the ones in the room that I’m in, but I really got interested in the pathway concept where I could turn on a specific set of lights through multiple rooms with one request, than turn them all off again once I got in bed. Before that, I used to leave the livingroom and hallway lights on all night and hope my housemate remembered to turn them off later.
The lights were easy, I just used a Hue bridge and some $15 white smart bulbs. The problem was figuring out how to trigger them. I have a very irregular routine for bedtime, and I didn’t want to put them on a time schedule. Motion sensors are very tricky because of the dog. I can’t use a minimote physically, and neither can the dog.
Initially I found that the Jawbone “Up” sleep tracker bracelet, which I was able to get on sale for about $50, worked well. When I was ready for sleep it was challenging, but I could press the one button on it, and trigger a night routine that would turn off those lights. (I did have them set up to turn on at a specific time of day) unfortunately, integration between SmartThings and Jawbone kept breaking every month or two. So while I kept the Jawbone for sleep monitoring and liked it, I ended up replacing it with a $50 smartenIT 3 toggle switch that both the dog and I can use. And then I added a $20 motion sensor I got on sale to make another touchless switch.
Total cost ended up being about $200. Very practical for me.
Three) the next thing I hadn’t really thought I would do during phase 1, but it turned out that there was a way to get voice control to turn my television on and off using SmartThings, Harmony, and IFTTT.
Prior to this my roommate would turn the TV on to either Roku or cable and just leave it there and then I would be able to watch during the day but using the handheld remote was pretty difficult.
Xfinity sent me of one of the early voice remotes but the problem with that one is you have to hold down the microphone button while you talk, which was challenging.
I would ask other people to change the channel or whatever, but I didn’t like asking other people to turn it off because I wasn’t sure somebody would be there to turn it on again later.
Anyway, one day my roommate came home with a Harmony home hub remote which he had gotten on sale at Best Buy for about $100 because he wanted a universal remote he could also toggle the pathway lights with, and it said on the box it was compatible with SmartThings. It turned out that at that time the integration was still in beta and didn’t work for what I needed, but we also found out in the forums that you could use voice text IFTTT and hit the Harmony channel that way.
After experimenting with hey Siri on my iPad, that turned out to work very well. It was clunky, and not natural language, “hey Siri, tell House Hashtag central underscore TV underscore on,” but it worked! I could turn the TV on and off by myself. That was actually a really big deal for me. There are similar voice systems available for people who have limited hand function but the cheapest ones are typically $2000. And this one was much more flexible. Plus we really like the Harmony remote. It’s very light (we got the one without the screen) and I could even work the buttons on it occasionally.
Anyway, that was going so well that I used it to justify buying the cheapest Apple Watch, for another $350. I also ended up using the watch for other things, like voice text to my friends, which I really liked. Even when I was out shopping with a helper, I could then send them out to the car for something and we could text where to meet up.
So, I ended up spending about $500 for a project I hadn’t even considered at the beginning for phase 1: voice control of my home entertainment set up. But it works really nicely.
I could also use the same basic set up, voice text to IFTTT, for voice control of my lights and my interior door lock. Again, a little clunky. But for me extremely useful. ( and eventually they did release the full harmony/SmartThings integration, which was a little smoother.)
- I hadn’t really decided what else I was going to do at that point. I thought I would probably add some more lights. I wasn’t ready to add switches particularly since I didn’t want to buy switches I might replace completely. I was pretty happy just with the door lock, the pathway lights, and TV voice control.
And then Echo began offering some control of lights. I knew it would either be great or just kind of a toy. Initially there was no SmartThings integration. But I already had the Hue bridge and a couple of bulbs. So I got on the waitlist at the $99 price.
Eventually it arrived, and shortly afterwards SmartThings added a fantastic official integration. Now I had all the same voice control I had had from the watch, but I could use natural language. If I said “study” and my roommate said “office” that was fine, we could give the same light two different names and both would work. Echo understood whether I said “Alexa, Turn Netflix on” or “Alexa, Turn on Netflix.” No hashtags or underscores needed!
Because now I didn’t have to work so hard to remember the exact phrasing of every command, I invested a lot more time in adding commands to the television controls from “Alexa, turn on ESPN TV” to "Alexa, turn on Netflix " it was awesome! Plus I had voice control of pause and rewind, something I never had before, although those commands were clunkier.
I was still using Harmony to actually do the controls for the entertainment, but I could talk to echo, have it talk to SmartThings, have SmartThings talk to harmony, and change channels! All totally hands-free. And it took less time than it took me to press the right buttons on the handheld remote. A few seconds lag, but no big deal.
Everybody who sees this thing loves it. It’s now become the primary means of controlling lights in multiple rooms in my house. (I added my path lights, so now I just say “Alexa, turn on bedtime” to turn on lights in the livingroom, hallway, and bedroom.) Plus it’s my voice method for controlling the entire entertainment system.
And they keep adding new features to it. I use it for music. I use it for news. We keep the shopping list on it. One of those things where new technology became available and also turned out to be very practical for me.
Total cost: $100 for the echo and $90 for some more bulbs. ( The price of the echo has gone up since it came out of beta. It now costs $179. Still totally worth it. Or you can get the Amazon Dot for about $50. It does all the same voice control, it’s just that its speaker for playing music isn’t as good.)
- Polishing. we added a few more bits and pieces. Some IBeacons so we could play around with triggering lights to come on right when I get to the base of the wheelchair ramp. Contact sensor, again on sale for about $20, so I know if a gate gets left open. Another dog-friendly button or two. Just a few more devices to make the things that we already had work a little better. About another $100 altogether.
That just about finished the phase 1 budget, around $1400.
- Just one more thing…video doorbell. of course, there’s always one more thing.
If I either didn’t count the smart watch in my budget, since after all I ended up using it mostly for other things, or I didn’t count the money that my roommate spent on the harmony, since he paid for that, then technically I stayed within my phase one budget. But realistically I went over by about 10%.
Because after I had the lock working so well, and the lights working so well, and voice working so well, I really wanted a way to see who was at the door so I would know whether it was worth it to take the five or six minutes it takes me to transfer from the couch to my wheelchair and go open the door. Or whether I could just use the intercom to tell someone I had already given the combination to that it was OK for them to come in. (Or use a voice text to tell my housemate to go let his friends in!)
I had planned on adding a video doorbell in phase 2, because I knew it would be useful, but there weren’t any that integrated with SmartThings and I wasn’t crazy about the reviews or the prices on them.
Then Amazon offered the Kuna smart lantern for $199. This is a Wi-Fi porch light that includes a motion trigger camera, a two way intercom, and a manual panic button Siren. Pretty much exactly what I wanted.
We have a different monitored security system which is not part of any of this project and not on the same budget. But it didn’t have the intercom or light feature.
The Kuna doesn’t integrate with SmartThings, but the feature set was just really good for me, and the price was good too. So I did end up getting it.
And then I stopped as planned. Well, sort of as planned, anyway.
And that’s where I stopped. There are a lot of other use cases I could do. There’s still a lot of lighting to consider, Some more switch options, the whole question of a thermostat, automatic door, gate, and window openers, window coverings, a window air-conditioner, a better bath lift than the one I have now, some automated shelving, the fantasy list goes on…
I have no idea what I will put into phase 2, or phase 3, or how much I will spend. I’m not even going to make a candidate list until late spring of 2016, because I just think there are going to be a lot more choices out there. But for now, by just picking these very specific use cases, I have significantly improved my daily life, and stayed pretty much on budget. (In spite of running out and buying some stuff I didn’t even know existed when I started.) All very practical, and of immediate use.
I’m not sure how much of it will carry over into phase 2. The only thing I really feel hundred percent confident of are the Hue smart bulbs. But I’m OK with that. I definitely feel I got my money’s worth for this initial phase. And then some.
So that’s how I implemented in phases and stayed on budget. I suspect this approach has a lot to do with having previously looked at the medical support systems, because so many of them really are based on the idea that you will only be automating for one room, primarily for one person. Which is what gave me the sense that I didn’t have to pick the perfect switches to replace everything in the house. I didn’t have to solve all the problems at once. I didn’t have to fully integrate everything. I didn’t even have to know what all the problems to be solved would be. I could just start with something that would have an immediate payback for me.
Different Plans for Different People
I realize the people who are into home automation as a hobby will think about things completely differently. They’ll see a new gadget and wonder what they could do with it. Or just pick something because it will be a fun project that they’ll enjoy doing.
Or maybe someone just has a really strong aesthetic sense and they want to design every aspect of their living space so it meets their vision.
Me, I just wanted to be able to take less than 10 minutes to get the front door open. And not have to leave the TV on all day. Mission accomplished. (at least for phase 1. )