A Smarter Crib

Over the last couple of years my home has slowly been getting smarter. It started in the fall of 2014 when Amazon provided an offer to Prime subscribers to buy the Echo at a discount. At that time Echo was really just a voice activated speaker for music from Amazon.

Philips Hue

During 2015 Amazon added features to Echo, and most significant being the ability to control Hue lights. Philips had been selling the wireless light bulbs for some time, but the ability to control them by voice was the incentive for me to buy a starter kit including a hub and two white light bulbs.

I installed the light bulbs in lamps in our basement, which is where I had the Echo, set up the hub, and then configured the interface between Alexa and my Hue account. Soon, I was able to say “Alexa, turn on basement lights” and “Alexa dim basement lights by 25%”. My home, or at least my basement, became a little smarter and the Echo became a little more useful.

Over the course of the year I bought one Hue color light and one more white light, put the color light in the basement and placed one white light in the living room and another in the bedroom. I also bought a dimmer switch from Philips to control and dim the bedroom light.

I found a If This Then That applet (back then they were called recipes) to automatically turn on the living and bed room lights at sunset and configured the Hue hub to turn the lights off at specific times each night. Now my house had become smarter.

In the spring of 2016 we had flooding in the finished basement of our home that was caused by the fact that our sump pumps failed during a huge rain storm. After significant repair and remodeling of the basement I set out to find a sensor that I could place in the sump pump to provide an early warning if the pit was filling up.

After some research, I found a moisture sensor from Lowes that had a cord long enough to go down the pit by as much as a couple feet. The sensor connects to a base that has batteries and the wireless radio so that it can communicate with devices on our home network.

SmartThings

Unfortunately, while the Hue hub supports the same protocol, it does not support the moisture sensor so I bought the SmartThings hub. Here in lies one of the not-so-smart things about the current state of the “Internet of Things” that make homes smart, there is incompatibility between products, which mean that you may end up with two or more hubs. Worse, most of these hubs require a wired connection to a network, which means that you will need enough network ports on your home WiFi access point.

You will find on SmartThings’ web site that you can use the SmartThings app to control Hue light bulbs, but to do so you must have the Hue hub/bridge. The SmartThings app talks to its hub, which in turn talks to the Hue hub to send commands to the light bulbs. You can replace the Hue app with the SmartThings app, but not the hub. Echo and Google Home are both capable of controlling SmartThings as well as Hue.

Many more devices are capable of working with the SmartThings hub than Hue. Over time I bought a motion sensor, which I placed in the basement to automatically turn on one of the Hue lights whenever I enter. I have a presence sensor in our car, which sends me a notification when the car enters the range for the sensor to connect to our WiFi network. If the car returns late at night, the SmartThings hub will turn on the living room light.

Fairly inexpensive sensors are available to place on doors and windows, making for an inexpensive home security system. You can buy sirens that will go off if you have “armed” the system and motion is detected on any of these sensors.

Logitech Harmony

A happy consequence of the flood in our basement was the purchase of a new Samsung TV, which also led to the purchase of a Yamaha soundbar, and of course there is also the Comcast HD set top box, all of which have their own remote controls. I bought a Logitech Harmony hub and remote control to consolidate all of the different remotes of our home entertainment system, and the Harmony hub also interfaces with SmartThings.

The interface between Harmony and SmartThings enables me to control the TV and lights with the Harmony remote and Echo and Google Home. For example, I have a movie mode configured on the remote that turns on the TV, starts Netflix, turns on the Hue lights and dims them to 50%. The same function is accessible to Echo, so I can say “Alexa, tell Harmony to turn on movies.” I’ve also been able to configure the Harmony app with the Comcast’s channel listings, which Echo can access and with that I can say “Alexa, turn on ESPN” and the TV turns on, changes channel to ESPN, and then the Hue lights are turned on. If I wanted, I could configure the motion sensor to trigger this action, but my wife thinks that is taking the home automation a step too far. For some reason, she doesn’t want the TV turned on to ESPN whenever she walks in the basement!

As I noted in my article about Google Home, with Chromecast you can use Home to access specific movies or shows on Netflix. To do the same thing with Alexa you need to add a Fire TV stick to your television. If you have Chromecast then it may be worth considering Google Home, but you can get by spending much less money with a Dot and Fire TV stick.

Each of the individual items that I have described are pretty inexpensive. At $179 the Echo is the most expensive, but you can now buy a Dot for $50 and for the same amount as an Echo put a Dot in each floor or major room in your house. In fact, I did add a Dot in the living room and connected it to our Bose Bluetooth speaker to stream music from Spotify. The Dot has access to all of the functions I have configured in Alexa over the last couple of years.

Earl Gray, Hot!

To be honest, very little of the home automation that I have set up is really necessary, except for the moisture sensor in the sump pump. What I have is based on components that I bought over a couple of years, mostly just to try out. My smart home set up does make my inner geek happy, and that kicked up a notch when Amazon enabled “computer” as a wake word for Echo. It now feels as though I am on Star Trek when I am in the basement, all I need is a replicator!

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About Frank

Mobile enthusiast and author
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