Recently I started to look into ways to make my home a “smart home.” I’ve been wanting to do it for awhile, but had never taken the time to research how easy or complex it was. For some odd reason I had it set in my mind that it would require a lot of additional wiring in my house to get it done, but boy was I wrong.
I started at the SmartHome.com site where they have a large array of devices that were suited for exactly what I was looking to do. Over the past two months I’ve been toying with setting everything up, ordering more, and in general just having a lot of fun watching everything come together. Below I’ve outlined my journey so that you can hopefully learn from some of my mistakes, and share some of your own tips if you’ve set up this stuff before.
–Briefly How it Works–
I’m not going to dive into the technical side of how this all works (despite having spent several hours reading up on it myself), but I do want to tell you that it’s probably not as complicated as you may think it is. Most of the “smart” devices are able to send communication across the power lines in your house, and some use RF frequencies to do the communication.
There’s not really anything special you need to do for the devices to communicate across your power lines, which is why this is so nice.
–Starting out –
Keep in mind I had no idea what I was doing at this point, and I didn’t realize all the different alternatives that were out there. For people looking for an extremely basic set up I’d have to say it doesn’t get much easier than this.
In the first round of purchasing, I bought a SmartLinc device for $130 and seven Appliance Modules for $26.99 each. The SmartLinc was nice because it plugs into your router, and instantly makes a web-based interface available for controlling your devices. Be warned that the interface is highly optimized for the iPhone/iPod Touch, and that viewing the same site in a desktop browser results in seeing grossly oversized buttons. It would have been nice if they had a desktop and mobile interface, but they apparently decided not to go that route.
The Appliance Modules actually look the same as the SmartLinc, but are there to compliment the unit. With them you’re able to plug a device into the module, and then plug the module into the wall. Once you do that the SmartLinc unit will be able to send on/off signals to toggle the power being passed on to what you have plugged into it. If you plan on hooking up a lamp you will want to dim, you may want to consider getting a LampLinc unit instead, but in my case I was hooking these up to non-dimmable compact florescent lights.
Does the SmartLinc just recognize when you add something to your house? Almost. You have to put the SmartLinc into a listening mode which can be done through the web interface or by holding down the small button on the unit itself. Then you hop on over to the box you want to link, and hold down the button for a few seconds. The SmartLinc will flag the device, and you’ll instantly be able to control it. Here’s a nice overview diagram of how it all works:
In the end I had all seven Appliance Modules hooked up and controlling lamps around the entire house. The simplicity of it all boggled my mind, but I quickly started to feel the limitations of the SmartLinc unit. The web interface is the only way to manage everything, and as a committed geek I was wanting to do a lot more. Then when I began looking for a native iPhone app everything went downhill. I found one called MiCasa (iTunes link) that synchronizes with SmartLinc, but in the most basic sense of synchronization. It would grab all of the devices I had added, but I had to go through and manually rename each device I had added despite already naming them through the web interface. The real killer, however, was that the SmartLinc API doesn’t allow more than one connection at a time. For the iPhone app, that meant both Ashley and I couldn’t be running the app at the same time, which rendered the system pretty useless to me.
If you plan on sticking with SmartLinc’s web interface you won’t have to worry about how many people actively have the page open because it’s a software restriction of the API that third-party developers are given to use. Having the web interface was cool and all, but just didn’t feel practical for heavy use. So I moved on.
Where did I go next? Well, I returned the SmartLinc and was pleasantly surprised at their truly “no hassle” return policy. It took like two minutes for me to get an RMA number from them, but the “upgraded” unit I went with was significantly more.
I decided on an ISY-99i kit that was $430 for my particular model after reading some really positive things that people had to say about the unit in general. Universal Devices makes different models of the ISY-99i based upon how serious you plan on getting with the whole set up, and I didn’t want to shortchange myself only to come back later on wishing I grabbed the model capable of handling more devices and programs (I’ll explain these later on). The ISY-99i unit does all of the hardcore processing, and then sends the signals to a “PowerLinc Modem” that passes them through the power grid in your household. My particular ISY-99i model can receive commands from network-connected devices and IR devices, such as a Logitech Harmony universal remote control.
What makes this so great? For starters it has an amazingly powerful iPhone app, called MobiLinc (previously called iLinc), that’s developed by a third-party. Thankfully the ISY-99i has a much more robust API, and it can support having multiple devices connected at the same time. Not only that, but they take it to the next level. The iPhone will show the status of all connected devices in real-time as demonstrated by this YouTube video. This feature alone impresses people to no end. Here are some screenshots of MobiLinc:
With MobiLinc I’m able to access everything that I have configured on my ISY-99i both on and off my network. That means I could, for example, adjust my thermostat from halfway around the world as long as I have an Internet connection.
Here are some of the other niceties of the ISY-99i:
- Manage everything from one place – Your changes are reflected pretty much everywhere when you alter names for connected devices, organize them in folders, and just about anything else. All of this info is open to developers to use, and iLinc makes great use of it. Most of the changes are shown in iLinc in near real-time.
- Create Scenes – You can group multiple devices/switches into a single scene that can all be controlled with one button. With a little bit of work (more so on the hardware side) you can toggle all the lights in your house at the exact same time… by pressing just one on/off switch.
- Create Programs – With the ISY-99i you aren’t able to do full-fledged programming, but they have a simple if/then/else structure set up for creating programs that can run when certain conditions are met. I’ll have some examples of how I use these later on in the article, but one thing you might like is the fact that things can be triggered relative to when the sun is supposed to set or rise… without any light sensors!
The application used to manage the ISY-99i is Java-based, which is something I normally despise to no end. In this case I made an exception because of how darn cool the device is, and that it being Java-based means that it is also cross-platform (runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux). I should also forewarn you that it isn’t the most fashionable app you’ll find, but it is extremely functional. In a case like this I put functionality ahead of aesthetics.I would much rather see development resources go towards new features rather than pretty graphics.
–Light Up the Place–
At this point I had a bunch of lamps being controlled by my iPhone app, but after seeing how cool those were I just couldn’t stop. I purchased a bunch of other devices so that I could control even more aspects of my house.
The main purchase this time around consisted of on/off light switches ($46 each) and dimmable light switches ($46 each). At first I bought just one (at the same time I bought the ISY-99i to help save on shipping) so that I could test it out around my house to see if it would even work. The thing that some people may have trouble with is that the switches need a small amount of power, and they draw that from the neutral wire. Some older houses may not have neutral wires in the switch/junction box, but if your house does, chances are that it will be a white wire that is not attached to anything in your junction box. Even though mine did have the necessary neutral wire I still wasn’t sure if the switches would work. I figured I’d test the waters with the one switch, and then get more if it was successful.
Lucky for me it all worked out, and I purchased several more for all of the main light switches located through the house (excluding ones located in places like closets). Using the ISY-99i software I was then able to group some of these lights together in “scenes” so that I could toggle the lights in an entire room with the press of a single button… on my iPhone! The coolness still hasn’t worn off for me, sorry. :)
I’m sure you probably have at least one light in your place that can be controlled by two different switches, right? I have a few of those as well, and so what I decided to do is wire it up so that one switch is the primary, and the other is merely a virtual switch. What do I mean?
The secondary (virtual) switch is tied into my electrical system, but doesn’t directly control the lights that it previously had. For example, we have overhead recessed lighting in our kitchen that can be turned on or off from either side of the room. One of the switches is still tied directly into the lights to control them, but I wired the other one so that it has no affect on those lights. I then tell the ISY-99i which lights I want the virtual switch to toggle when pressed by using programs (there are some other methods to do this as well). In my example our virtual light switch for the kitchen turns on both the overhead lightening and our under-the-cabinet lights.
These switches quickly become second nature as you start to use them to highlight common paths you take throughout your home. Maybe you set up a bedroom light switch so that when it’s pressed it turns on all the necessary lighting to get you safely to the kitchen for your midnight snack. There’s an endless number of possibilities.
–Bringing in More Gizmos–
Why stop at controlling just lights? There are so many other things that you can manipulate with a powerful system like this. Here are some of the other things I’ve bought:
- Garage Door Controller/Sensor ($72) – Never ask yourself again whether you forgot to put the garage door down again. You can check right from your iPhone, and if you did forget just go ahead and close it from anywhere in the world.
- Motion Detectors ($35 each) and Magnetic Open/Close Sensors ($35 each) – I use a combination of these two items around the house, and they’re easy to place since they are both 100% wireless thanks to RF communication and battery power. In particular I use the magnetic sensors to detect when our doors accessible from the outside of the house are opened so that nearby lights can be turned on. Using this in combination with the motion detectors means that I can have lights already on when I have arms full of groceries that I’m carrying into the house late at night. Or, I can even have an email sent to me if any of these things are triggered when I’m not at home.
- Thermostat ($200) – Remotely adjust the temperature in your house from wherever you are. With the right set of sensors you can even create a system that is pretty good at telling when you’ve left or entered the house, and adjust the thermostat accordingly. There’s also a $49 (one-time fee) software module you can purchase so that you’re ISY-99i can fetch weather data from WeatherBug for your area, and you can build programs that utilize that information.
- RF Access Point ($40) – The RF access point doesn’t actually trigger anything itself. Instead it bridges RF-only devices like the thermostat, motion detectors, and magnetic sensors with your home’s power grid. That way commands/status updates sent from these devices can be properly communicated to the ISY-99i.
- Door Locks ($138) with RF Communicator ($100) – There are door locks available that can be accessed with RF remotes, and with the right accessory you can lock/unlock all the doors in your house with one button on your iPhone. If you pick up one of the 3-in-1 locks you’ll also be able to unlock the door right from the keypad that is on the unit. Do you forget to lock the doors a lot when you leave? With a little logic you can set the doors to automatically lock behind you (using programs, which we describe in our next section).
These additional accessories is really where things can start to add up, but at the same time these help you make the most out of your system.
In my eyes programs are the heart of any ISY you decide to go with. Once you get all of your devices added to your ISY-99i you can start performing actions based upon events. You can set lights to turn on/off at certain times of the day, use motion sensors to turn lights on, lock your doors when you’re leaving, and so much more.
The nice thing is that you don’t have to be a programmer to create these. The structure is a basic if/then/else statement where you fill in the blanks. This can be both nice and frustrating depending on how complex you decide to get. Since you’re confined to just if/then/else statements performing even simple tasks may require several programs to get things working just the way you want, but you’ll quickly grasp how they work.
So what kind of programs can you make? Here’s a few of the things I use them for:
- Detect when I’m leaving/returning – This is a pretty complex system I have set up to detect whether we’re leaving or returning. Basically it uses the garage sensor in cahoots with some motion sensors to determine whether we’re leaving the house or returning. If we’re leaving it turns off all the lights, locks the doors behind us, adjusts the thermostat, closes the garage door if we forget to close it, and enables a security mode that will both email me if any motion sensors pick up movement in addition to randomly turning on lights throughout the house. When returning all security modes are disabled, the thermostat is adjusted again, and the garage door is closed if we forget to close it.
- Turn lights on where I’m headed to – With some strategically placed motion sensors I’m actually able to determine which direction you’re walking in and turn on lights in rooms that you’re likely headed towards.
- Adjust the thermostat – I already mentioned that our thermostat is adjusted when we leave or return, but I also have it on timers so that the temperature settings are updated when we also go to bed or should be waking up.
- Time-based light switches – I have a few light switches that actually switch their action based upon the time of day. For example, our kitchen lights can be turned on/off from two different entrances we have. One of them gets configured to do different things depending on what time it is. For most of the day the switch will turn on the main overhead kitchen lighting which is pretty bright. From 1AM to 6AM, however, it will only turn on the under-the-counter lights. Why? Well, at that time of the day it’s nicer to turn on lights that aren’t so bright since we’re likely getting up from bed to get a glass of water.
You’ll truly start to see the value of the system once you get into make programs on the ISY. Things like email notifications can alert you of certain events, or you can cause lights to blink as another notification method. One good example of that is putting a motion sensor outside your front door would mean that you could flash lights in rooms where you may not normally hear someone knocking. That way you’ll always know when someone is at the door.
If you decide to purchase some of the add-on modules, such as the one that fetches WeatherBug data for your area, that information can also be used in your programs. One nice thing that I use the WeatherBug data for is to help determine whether our humidifier should be running based upon the outside temperature and the inside humidity level reported by my thermostat.
Programs are where you’ll spend a lot of your time configuring and tuning your set up, but in the end it is all worth it.
–Controller Units: Think Before You Buy–
So how can you control all of this stuff from one central interface? It’s funny you should ask. There are some large and what appears to be clunky touch-screen controller units available at some hefty pricetags. The one pictured to the right will run you about $530, which is pretty damn crazy if you ask me. Well, thanks to the MobiLinc app my iPhone has an awesome interface for managing all of this stuff, but I wanted some units that were a bit more “dedicated” so that I didn’t always need to have my iPhone on me. The solution? I went out and bought two of the 8GB iPod touches for $150 each (on sale the day after Thanksgiving) along with two docks, which is not only significantly less but is also much more aesthetically pleasing when sitting on a counter. Plus the iPod touch is so much more versatile with the wide arrange of third party apps available.
Keep in mind that I haven’t tried out the Insteon touch-screen unit, and so there’s a chance I may be missing something, but the iPod touch is able to do everything I need plus some. So if you plan on using the same things as me rest assured that the iPhone/iPod app works very well… and will likely only get better as the developer receives more feedback.
I’ve met all kinds of people that go way above and beyond the kind of support I ever expected. The developer of MobiLinc, Wes, has been very welcoming of feedback and is always fast to respond. Plus the company behind the ISY-99i, Universal Devices, has a dedicated community that are always there to jump in and provide tips/advice whenever they can… not to mention the fact that the company itself is very active in their forum. And if you still haven’t found the help you need there’s always the SmartHome forum.
The point I’m trying to make is that the community for these devices is rapidly growing, and there are all kinds of outlets available to answer any questions.
At this point you’re probably thinking that I got a lot of this stuff for free in exchange for writing this article. Well, you’d be wrong. Every single thing I wrote about I researched and purchased on my own, and received no compensation of any kind for writing this article. The reason I wanted to write about it is because a lot of people I talk to think that systems like this cost well over $10k to set up, but in reality you can set up a really versatile system for a fraction of that.