A beginners guide to home automation

Just over a month ago I set up automated lights in my apartment with Phillips Hue, managed through Apple Home — so that my wife and I could control the lights in our home through our iPhones. This article should serve as an honest review for anyone considering doing something similar, for either practical reasons or just because it seems cool (it is).

Bottom line: Being able to control, dim and synchronise all your lights with your iPhone is damn cool. It feels like the future. But as with any new tech, this one is not without it’s challenges and complications. This is the practical guide I wish I’d had when setting up the house and attempting to convince my wife that I hadn’t totally lost my mind.

Do you really need to automate your lights?

Probably not. For me, the reason for automation was more practical than anything — with a newborn baby in the house, I wanted a way to have greater control over lighting for specific situations.

Automation brings this.

It means that when the baby needs a 3am feed, one tap and the nursery light turns a warm orange, and a couple of the lounge lights turn on to a dim 2% glow. Or when I go to prepare dinner, a scene will switch the kitchen lights on full, pulls the dining room into a warm glow, but importantly doesn’t mess with whatever lighting is going on in the nursery. It’s also useful when I’ve forgotten to turn the lights off when bundling the family out the front door — a tap from the supermarket, and everything turns off.

So whilst don’t need to automate your lights, if you’re anything like me you’re probably going to do it anyway… just because you can! But consider the following points when you’re planning out your home of the future, because they could save you some hassle when making your way into the internet of things…

You don’t need colored bulbs

This will save you 50% on costs straight off-the-bat (because the coloured bulbs are absurdly expensive). Automation is practical more than anything, which is obviously what lighting has always been. So whilst the idea of making your lounge a deep purple for movie nights, or turning the house into a multi-coloured hell for a kid’s party seems like a fun idea… 99.9% of your use is going to be simply turning lights on and off so that you can see.

Besides, all white bulbs are dimmable, which it turns out is all you really need. We have one coloured bulb in the kid’s room, which I sometimes set to a more sleep-inducing orange, or a wake-up-now-blue for mornings… but I could live without it.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no way to (easily) sync the bulbs to your music or TV — which would be the only case I can think of where having a coloured bulb would be semi-useful. You could use a Philips Hue “lab” app to do that, but you’d be better off sitting in total darkness than attempting to install one of those.

So yes, a purple lounge is a nice idea and looks awesome in the Apple’s promotional photos for Home… but you won’t use it. Trust me.

Don’t replace the wall-switch

When you set up these bulbs they basically make any physical switch obsolete. On day one you’ll turn the switch to the on position, then control that light from your phone from that moment onwards. This works well for lights that have switches on the cord or the light itself, but a nightmare for wall switches — which you’d be surprised how often you subconsciously rely on. Muscle memory isn’t your friend here.

The bottom line, don’t try to automate any light which has a wall switch. It’s just annoying. It’s annoying for visitors who have no idea why your light does nothing when they flip the switch, and it’s annoying when you dim-wittingly flip the same switch you’ve flipped a million times prior, to be reminded that you’ve gone all Tony Stark on your apartment. It’s especially bad in an emergency, when you need light right now.

The exception in our case is the kitchen ceiling light, the switch for which was already in a hard-to-reach position. I just taped that sucker up.

Your iPhone isn’t enough

You’d be surprised how often there’s no iPhone in sight — usually at night when the phones are on charge, or in another room. On more than one occasion, usually when I was out of the house and my wife’s phone was in the baby’s room, there was literally no way to turn lights on, other than to flash up the Apple TV and ask Siri (a risky move). Those times, my wife ended up messaging me from her laptop and asking me to do it remotely — which is a ridiculous state of affairs. When you can’t do something as basic as lighting a room on demand, suddenly all this technology becomes a monumental obstruction.

Our wall-mounted switch

So we ended up buying a Hue Tap Switch (above) which is wall mounted in the center of the apartment, and serves as an alternative to fumbling with an iPhone in the night. One click and all the lounge lights dim to 1% to mark the way to the baby’s room. Another click and everything turns off.

You’ll need a physical switch as an alternative to your phone—I can’t stress this enough. The Hue Tap will serve you well in this regard, but it could definitely use some work from a functional standpoint.

Consider emergencies

One night the baby woke up screaming (surprise surprise), but on arriving down the other end of the house I realized I hadn’t picked up a phone on the way. So instead of being able to casually flick on a light and deal with his baby shenanigans, I had to fumble around in the dark until eventually retrieving my iPhone. The baby didn’t seem at all interested in waiting. This kind of thing happens a lot and it’s frustrating as hell to not be able to turn on a light under pressure… yet another reason for not replacing ceiling lights controlled by a wall switch.

In another instance I heard a suspicious noise in the middle of the night, but instead of being able to instantly switch my bedside light on — I had to mess around with my phone which was the other side of the room on charge. Fortunately it was just our friendly possum friend, Simon.

So definitely consider which lights you might need in an emergency, because using your phone is nowhere near as quick as flipping a switch!

You can’t rely on Siri (obviously)

You can use Siri to control the lights… in theory. But if you’ve ever used Siri, even once, you’ll know that she rarely does what you want. This is definitely the case when asking fairly complicated automation things of her.

“Hey Siri, set the lounge lights to 50%” — totally works, except sometimes she’ll hear something totally different and turn all the lights on full-blast. Which includes the baby’s room, and now the baby is awake. Siri isn’t ready for this kind of responsibility, and at best the conversation goes a bit like this:

Me: “Hey Siri, turn the lights off”
Siri: “Sorry, Buzz. I didn’t get that”
Me: “Lights off”
Siri: “I didn’t understand, Lie Soft”
Me: “Lights. Off”
Siri: “Your wish is my command” (Or some kind of ill-timed witty banter)

45 seconds of fighting with my indifferent robotic assistant doesn’t feel like a productive use of my time, and again just serves to remind me how I’ve over-complicated something as straight-forward as turning on and off lights. On the plus side, it makes me pretty confident that machines aren’t coming for my job just yet.

The Home app isn’t there yet

Home is the Apple software that allows you to control your lights from the swipe-up Control Centre on your phone. It’s pretty handy and works 95% of the time, but goes unresponsive for no apparent reason the remaining 5%. I imagine reliability will improve over time though. Fortunately our wall-switch helps when Home isn’t playing ball.

Similarly functionality like turning lights off when you leave the house is possible through Home, as is time-based stuff like turning the lights on at sunrise— but they’re not nearly clever enough to work seamlessly in practice. There’s no consideration for the fact that multiple people may exist in one household (so if I leave the house to buy milk, my wife and kid are plunged into darkness) — or that some lights should simply be left out of any time-based trickery (like the nursery). Again, I imagine this’ll improve over time, but don’t set your hopes too high for now.

You probably won’t use advanced automation

Finally, you can do some pretty mad stuff with your lights by linking up with services like If This Then That. For example, I thought it’d be cool to flash the kitchen lights when something was added to our “Shopping List” Trello board. I was wrong, it was not cool. Another time I tried an add-on that turned one of the lights into a flickering candle. Pro tip: just light a damn candle. At one point I even made my office light turn blue when I received a new Twitter @ mention. But that was short-lived, because I don’t care about Twitter at 4 in the morning when my entire house ominously transforms into what resembles the climax of a horror movie.

Ultimately, you don’t need more from your lights than just the basics. They turn on and off, they’re dimmable, they’re grouped into scenes and they work the instant you need them to.

The verdict?

As frustrating as the above points are, I honestly wouldn’t go back. Muttering “Hey Siri, turn all the lights off” into the void when I’ve got a snoozing baby in my arms is crazy useful. Turning all the lights onto a welcoming glow on my return from work is super cool. And switching everything off remotely when I’ve left the house in a hurry is a really neat way to help us be more energy conscious. Even my wife agrees.

My life isn’t anything even close to this feature video though, despite my best efforts to make it so (although in reality, the woman in the video’s phone would probably die at some point and she’d be locked out of her smart house screaming at Siri through the unnecessarily smart door cursing her desire to spend thousands of dollars automating literally every device).

Going into this, I hadn’t thought too much about the fundamentals, how much you rely on basic functionality, and how big a deal lighting is especially with a baby in the house. So it’s worth taking a moment to consider your own needs in this regard, but hopefully this article outlines some of the lessons learned in my situation.

But if you’re thinking about bringing lighting automation into your house, I’d totally recommend it. Prepare yourself though, this is a slippery slope… you’re going to want to automate everything from this point onwards!