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Smart Home

Let’s say you could implement something that could save you time, make your life easier, potentially save you money, and delight you a little bit every day. Would you do it?

Many of us here at AE and in The Dojo are fans of home automation for those reasons — if done right, home automation can make your life more convenient and even fun.

In this article, I’m going to take you through five of the most high-impact ways to automate your home. They’re things we use every day, and they’re part of my favorite category of productivity: you set them up once, and they pay you back over and over.

I Can Turn My Lights On By Myself, Thank You Very Much

So why would you want to implement home automation?

Let’s be honest: you aren’t going to save a lot of time eliminating the 2 seconds it takes to turn on and off a light switch when you enter and leave a room.

Home automation is about increasing convenience. You have enough on your plate trying to get everything done in the time you have to do it. The more little things you can eliminate, the less you need to deal with, and the more you can enjoy your downtime.

Home automation can give you peace of mind: no more worrying about whether you turned off (or left on) lights or left the garage door open.

If configured correctly, home automation devices like smart thermostats can (over time) save you money by using less energy to heat or cool your home when it’s not needed.

Finally, and I hope you will allow me to be shallow for a moment: smart devices just look nicer than their more traditional counterparts. Why are thermostats so ugly?

5 Ways To Automate Your Home

#1: Old-School Light Timers and Sensors

It is very easy to get out of control when you enter the world of home automation.

Somehow in the last few years, automating your home has become equated with “smart homes”, but people have been doing home automation for decades!

You can spend a lot of money and introduce a lot of complexity to do something that this $9 timer will do perfectly:

Old-school light timer

Want the lights to come on when you enter the garage? You could set up an awesome HomeKit-enabled setup with smart lights and motion sensors. Or you could replace your light switch in the garage with this $14 switch.

Motion Sensor Switch

#2: Productive Appliances

The next category of home automation is what we call productive appliances.

What makes an appliance “productive”? It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or super high-tech. A productive appliance is an appliance that makes life easy and does things for you just the way you like it in a repeatable way.

Here’s a perfect example: Thanh likes having hard-boiled eggs. Can he make them himself? Sure, theoretically, but why would he when there is the VonShef Electric Egg Cooker in his life?

Vonshef Egg Cooker

He can put up to 7 eggs inside, start it, and he has perfect eggs just the way he likes every time, without him having to deal with it.

A similar (albeit more expensive) example is what we call the “Tea Robot” in the Dojo: the Breville One-Touch Tea Maker.

You just put the tea in, and it will automatically lower, raise, and steep your tea at just the right temperature every single time.

Breville Tea Robot

Again, do you need a tea robot to make tea? Of course not. But being able to hit a button and focus on something else while you have perfect tea every time is fantastic.

Many members of the Dojo are big fans of the Instant Pot, which is another example of a productive appliance. Erin Chase, who appeared on the podcast talking about structuring your day and focus has even created a course helping you use the Instant Pot.

#3: Smart Lighting

A while ago I wrote an article about how you can automate your life (mostly) without technology. I wrote that “most people think of automation as turning lights on and off,” and that there is much more to automation than that.

What I wrote is true but… it’s time to turn our lights on and off!

As I wrote above, many light automation scenarios can be handled by low-tech timers and sensors. However, “smart” lighting solutions have their place:

  • You can control the light color and temperature, and customize it depending on mood, time, or darkness.
  • You can trigger light changes when all or specific people leave or enter the house.
  • You can control your lights even when you’re not home.
  • You can set up super-customized automatic schedules.
  • You can, if you choose, connect your lights to some of the web automation tools we talk about in our technology automation article.
  • If you use them in conjunction with the smart assistant devices we’ll cover below, you can control the lights with your voice which is extremely convenient.

A common place to start with smart lighting is the Philips Hue system. The bulbs connect to your wireless network, and then you can control each bulb or create groups.

Philips Hue

I have Philips Hue bulbs in my living room and bedrooms, and it is very convenient to be able to control lights from anywhere in the house using my voice or mobile device.

You can also set up automated routines. For example: certain members of my family, who I otherwise love very much, are horrible at turning off the lights in their bedroom before they leave to go to school.

I set up a routine that automatically turns off all the lights upstairs at 9 am, so even if they forget, the lights will still be turned off.

The Philips Hue bulbs are good, but lately, I have leaned more towards the Lutron Caseta system. Instead of replacing individual bulbs, you replace the light switch.

I have found that while my family has embraced smart lighting, certain members of my family, who I otherwise love very much, missed the simplicity and tactileness of just turning on and off a light switch.

Lutron Caseta

Now we have the best of both worlds — the smart home automation and convenience, with a physical light switch.

As a bonus, many of our lighting setups have more than one bulb. This way if a light fixture has four bulbs, I don’t need to replace four bulbs with smart bulbs — I just need to replace the one switch.

Whichever smart light system you use, make sure it is compatible with the major smart home systems like Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, and Google Home. That way, you can mix and match systems and aren’t tied to one particular vendor or app.

Here are some automations that members of the Dojo and I use with smart lighting:

  • I have it set up so that when my wife comes home (it knows it is her because her phone is connected to the network) and it is dark, when the garage door opens it turns on the lights going up the stairs from the garage.
  • When I return home before 7 am, that means that I am returning home from the gym or my morning walk. I always do my morning reading then, so the light beside the sofa automatically turns on for me.
  • You can do fun things like have the lights go crazy when you say “Alexa, dance party!”, or have it so that your lights flash or change color when your favorite sports team scores. Christina in the Dojo has an automation set up so that when they say “Hey Siri… Go Hawks!” the lights change color to blue and green.

There are countless ways you can use smart lighting, but the key is to ask yourself this question: “How can I use this to make my life a little bit easier and more convenient?”

#4: Smart Thermostats

Programmable thermostats have been around forever, so why do you need smart thermostats?

For some people, the fact that traditional thermostats are so ugly (I repeat: why?!) is reason enough, but for more practical people, here are some benefits of a smart thermostat:

  • You can have the thermostats automatically adjust the temperature when no one is home. This can save money on your power bill by not heating or cooling when no one is there to benefit.
  • You can control the thermostat when you’re not home. As an example, this winter we went on a family vacation for a week. When we arrived back at the airport, I knew the house would be f-r-e-e-z-i-n-g when we got home, so before we even left the airport, I turned up the heat with my phone. It was nice and toasty when we walked through the door.
  • You can tie in a smart thermostat with smart assistants, and connect everything with Amazon Alexa, HomeKit, or Google Home to automate everything.

The thermostat I currently use is the ecobee, but the most popular is the Nest Learning Thermostat.

#5: Smart Assistants

I left Smart Assistants for last because they tie everything together. There are several different brands, but the most popular are:

Smart Assistants allow you to control the devices in your home, play music, and provide information all with your voice.

Which device is best? You know what I’m going to say: it depends.

Many people who are all-in on the Apple or Google ecosystem prefer to use a smart device from those companies.

I like the Amazon Echo precisely because it is not from those two companies. I like the fact that it is more flexible, and I can connect it to devices from any manufacturer.

Amazon Echo

Whichever you choose, you can’t go wrong. They’re all good.

Thanh has shared how he uses his Amazon Echo to be more productive, but here are some other things you can do with a smart assistant:

  • Start, stop, or control your music with your voice. You can say “Alexa, play surf music” and it will play something from Spotify or whatever music service you use.
  • Control your smart lights. You can say “Hey Siri, set master bedroom brightness to 50%.”
  • Find the weather, latest news, or sports scores
  • Do currency and measurement conversions
  • Do math calculations
  • Find out traffic. Say “Alexa, how long will it take me to get to Burnaby Central Secondary School?”, and it will tell you how long it will take with current traffic.
  • Ask for information. If you want to know the population of Port Alberni, British Columbia (and who doesn’t), you can ask “Alexa, what is the population of Port Alberni?” (Answer: 17,740).

A killer feature of Smart Assistants is multiple, named timers. I use this heavily when I am cooking things from my meal kit delivery service. I’ll say “Alexa, set a rice timer for 12 minutes” and then while that is going “Alexa, set a garlic timer for 1 minute” and possible “Alexa, set an onion timer for 4 minutes”.

You can then ask how much time is left for each thing, and then the timer goes off it will tell you which one it is. Super handy.

I also use alarms with my kids. If it is time to go to soccer practice or when it is time for them to get off the Xbox, instead of arguing with them to get off, I’ll tell them they have 7 minutes and say “Alexa, set an alarm for 7 minutes”.

When the alarm goes off, they know it’s time.

Another feature of the Echo I love is one not many people know about. If you have multiple Echos, you can use them to communicate with each other.

My home is three floors, and because I am old and cranky, I hate it when people yell from other rooms or up and down stairs when they want something.

Since we have a few Echos on different floors, I can say “Alexa, drop in on kitchen Echo.”

The Echo in the kitchen will play a sound and turn green, and then I can speak to it and hear the responses. It’s like an in-home intercom system. When you’re done, say “Alexa, hang up”.

Don’t Go Crazy With Home Automation All At Once

As you’ve seen, there are many different ways you can implement home automation, and you can spend a lot of time and money setting it all up if you go off the deep end.

Instead, I’d recommend taking a more productive approach. Pick one type of automation, and try it out. Give it a chance for a week and see how you like it. If you don’t, you can return it.

It can be tempting (everyone does it, including me) to start setting things up just because you can. That’s fine if you are doing it as a hobby, but you’ll get true productivity benefits by being more focused.

Remember: you want to focus on things that will make your life easier and more convenient.

If you have a favorite home automation tip or tool, let us know in the comments.

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Brooks Duncan

I love taking technical topics and translating them so that they make sense to non-nerds. I'm a Chartered Professional Accountant and have been a software developer and have run software support in very small startups and extremely large public corporations. I strive to be relentlessly helpful in everything that I do. I live in Vancouver, Canada and insert extra u's in many of my words.

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  1. This was a helpful article about home automation. I want to get automated lighting for my home. I'll look for a professional who can help install automated lighting later this summer.

  2. Hey,

    I was browsing a few pages related to Home Automation and couldn’t help but notice that you have this epic page on your site. It’s definitely very useful.

    I was wondering if you’d like to take a look at my recent article on Smart Home Automation Market in India 2020. It’s very detailed, and that makes me think that you might be interested in reading it.


  3. It’s interesting to know that a productive appliance will make your life easier and will do the things that you like. A friend of our family is entering the home automation world, and we are looking for advice. I will let my husband know about the benefits of home automation to see if it helps.

  4. One thing to consider is you can pick and chose different devices even if they are from different companies.
    I’ve got an August smart lock to control my door; synology NAS for files; iHome sensors for water leaks and motion sensors; dlink cameras for video monitoring.

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