Now that I’m a proud homeowner I have the opportunity to choose home automation solutions. I’ve said in the past that it’s too soon to do extensive home automation because the technology is so young… but it’s hard to take my own advice.

I’ve purchased two WeMo switches and a collection of Wireless Sensor Tags. These products have pleasantly surprised me. I’ve heard mixed reviews of SmartThings, and I was preparing myself to build all my sensors on a RaspberryPi or something similar, but then I saw how simple those Tags seemed to be. I have not been disappointed.

The water sensors seem to be reasonable priced, especially since they have both capacitive and resistive sensors, as well as Temperature sensors. The batteries should last 3-4 years. I bought the 5 pack, because I’m super paranoid about water leaks after some of my experiences and the shared horror stories of my friends.

The “open door” detector that lets me know (quietly) if the boys leave their room in the middle of the night was really easy to set up as well. I have that sensor doing double duty, it kicks on a space-heater through a WeMo insight switch when their room gets colder than a preset range. This way I can keep their room warmer at night than the rest of the house.

They have a very usable mobile app, but what I’m really surprised by is the power of their web based “Kumo App“.

App Interface My web browser speaks to me when events happen!

They actually offer a web-based IDE for their JavaScript-like automation scripting language. The documentation could use some more help, but I was able to create a simple custom script in a few minutes. Anyway, I’ve done DIY security systems before, and these tags are way better than I expected. The addition of a nice hosted scripting environment is icing on the cake. Not to mention they allow you to configure webhooks for integrating with other custom systems. They even allow you to configure calls to web-services on your local network. They also offer some nice out of the box integrations with a few other popular products, like WeMo, Nest, Dropcam, and Honeywell Lyric. Then there’s IFTTT support, which – while slow – is still useful for integrating with a much wider array of home automation products and services.

So, I have a lot of thoughts and plans for the future, but for my simple use cases right now I’m very happy. Eventually my home will have be full of all kinds of sensors like a space-ship!

Homeboy recipe

I received a Homeboy Camera last week. This little device is really neat, it’s a battery powered wifi security camera. Supposedly the batteries will last a month. It does energy efficient motion detection. The hardware and the iOS app are good. The setup experience went pretty smoothly, and the little magnetic mount is cool I was able to put this on an outside wall without running any wires. I think the $150 price is pretty good for what it does. And, I have a few neat ideas of how to use it.

One of those ideas was to trigger a recording using the Amazon Echo voice assistant.

I love using my Amazon Echo for a long time, I was excited when they added IFTTT support, but was a little dissapointed with the events that the Echo can trigger by default. I don’t want to remember that when I ask for Alexa for my todo list it will send my wife a text message. Now the Alexa SDK is available and I have started building some more powerful custom actions.

I can now say “Alexa, tell security camera to record a video” and 5-10 seconds later I have a push notification on my phone with a link to a video from my front door.

Here’s how I set that up.


Sign up for IFTTT. Configure the Homeboy Channel, and the Maker channel, as well as the either the SMS Text channel or the PushBullet channel.

Create a new recipe connecting the Maker channel to Homeboy, here’s mine. Remember the event name you chose.

Then create a recipe notifying you whenever a new video is ready from Homeboy, here’s mine.

Now you need to dive into the code.

If you’re not comfortable editing some code files, then this will be a challenge, but it should all be possible even for power users who can’t code.

Follow the instructions on First you will have to download that source code repository to your computer.

There are a lot of little detailed steps in there, but persevere! Eventually you will have this Node program running in the Amazon Cloud and relaying requests from your Echo to the IFTTT trigger you set up earlier.

There are so many possibilities with sending different events to IFTTT and triggering actions on almost anything that integrates there. It’s really amazing to think about. I also have barely scratched the surface of what the Alexa Skills Kit can do. I’m excited about this platform.

The Problems with Power

All of our amazing gadgets require electricity to run. All of that electricity has a cost. It’s something many of us don’t think about. There are also many inconveniences we face just trying to get power to our devices or charge their batteries.

Cable Routing

If you live in an older house you will never have enough power outlets when you need them. You might need lots of extension cords or power strips. I recommend these belkin power strips because the plug end is flat to slide behind furniature and it rotates to change angle for more attractive routing.

If you have a room that is lit with a lot of lamps, I can personally recommend these remote outlet switches. This is such a simple and affordable solution, especially for dark aparment living rooms, you will wonder how you got by without them.

Device Charging

In the past 5 years almost all cell phones charge using a USB interface. USB is a cable standard that has 4 wires in it. Two are for data and two are for power. Many devices have been made to accept power through a USB cable standard. Micro and Mini USB are two different standards that are common now. All this means that people have realized that the larger rectangular USB plug has become the new power outlet that’s most important in our day to day lives of getting power into our cell phone batteries.

One solution that has grown in popularity lately is USB Outlets. Nice to have but risky because of current draw requirements increasing lately. Originally you only got 500mA out of a USB cable, iPads and other tablets need quite a bit more than that, as does the Fire TV Stick and Raspberry Pi. So, many devices now have their own custom charging wall warts that provide more current to the devices that need it, which means your low-power USB power adapters aren’t as useful as they were a few years ago. So, investing in a USB power adapter that’s installed in the walls seems a little silly, but undoubtedly useful depending on your situation.

Instead I would look at something like this Monoprice adapter which screws on over the existing outlet. Or, this Anker 5 port charger which offers 5 high-power charging ports wherever you need it! None of these require you to mess with wiring in the wall socket. I put the Anker 5 port charger in our living room and have one of every type of charging cable so we can charge every device we own and have the right cable for our friends with Android phones when they come over.

Power Waste

If you are concerned about devices sucking “phantom power” while you are not using them, you can check if you really have a problem using a kill-a-watt first. This will sit between your device and the wall power and measure how much electricity it uses in a given time. Measure while the device is “on”. Then measure to see if any more significant power flows through it while the device is “off” or in standby.

If you know you have devices using power when they shouldnt, the simplest answer is to use this power strip which has individual mechanical switches on each outlet for precise and trustworthy control of what is and is not getting juice right now. The Belkin WeMo remotely switched outlets are also an option. These can be controlled from a nice smartphone app, but integration with other systems can be a little tricky still.

Wait on Further Home Automation

Home automation could solve a lot of these phantom power problems, but I don’t think the time is right to invest in home automation (for most people) yet.

Instead, I would look for non-connected solutions that can make your home more efficient. For instance, if you have a small space heater for a small room but don’t want to go to the hassle of hooking it up to a thermostat, you can get a timed outlet switch which is a simple sleep-timer like device for shutting power off after 1/2 hour.

I would wait before considering any of the internet connected LED lighting solutions like the Philips Hue or Belkin WeMo Lighting Kits. The market forces around these is changing rapidly and prices are likely to drop soon. This is also a market that is begging for consolidation and innovation. I have a feeling a clear market leader will emerge soon. This also means I am waiting before purchasing any more LED light bulbs at all! I don’t want to invest in a 15-20 year bulb when wireless “smart” LED bulbs will be in an affordable price range so much sooner.

Also, Apple has released their HomeKit software which offers one way for developers and manufacturers to consolidate the control of some of these internet connected smart-home devices. I think the home-automation market for new entry level users is about to change radically in the next couple of years, so investing hundreds of dollars to solve the home automation and lighting problem now might be a bad idea.

If you are really set on starting a DIY home automation project now, then you should consider the packages from SmartThings which offers a good app and a good cross protocol hub. I like the things I have read about SmartThings. Or possibly look at the Almond+ which is both a home automation hub and a modern 802.11ac WiFi router in one box for a decent price. Unfortunately I cannot find any reviews of the Almond+. There is no guarantee these systems are remotely “future-proof.”

You should be aware there are a few possible security problems with the way current generations of home automation devices connect to each other. Beware the potential hacker who controls your internet connected home. Incomplete home security will become a more common story as the Internet of Things becomes a reality.

Surge Protection and Battery Backups

A UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) is a big battery that will run a few devices for a few minutes. Before we all used laptops, these were designed to give you time to save your work and shut down your desktop computer safely when the power went out. That’s still what they are used for in data-centers, and you might want to have one if you are running your own server at home. Specifically, if you took my recommendation to get a Synology Diskstation, then you can buy a small UPS that will keep uninterrupted power flowing to your Diskstation long enough for it to shut itself down automatically. The DiskStation software knows how to talk to many common UPS boxes. Pretty cool! I have my eye on this one. I’ll post an acutal recommendation on these once I have time to do a review. A small 2 disk NAS shouldn’t need much in the way of power, and there should be a decent UPS out there for less than $150 that will protect your data in the case of power loss.

If you want a more robust battery backup system for extended periods without power you can consider the bigger systems from GoalZero but those are mostly just for giving you light and charging a few small devices during a day or two blackout. If you have a day or two of blackout you might need a lot more power for things like refrigeration, heat, or sump pumps, which won’t work for long off any computer sized UPS or any of the systems from GoalZero.