Three Rules for Home Automation

I like to write automations for things. It could be a little bit of AppleScript, a Keyboard Maestro Macro, or a Home Assistant automation. I also like "smart home" stuff: hue lights, thermostats, humidity sensors, you name it. But no no matter what I'm building or adding, I've set up a few simple rules to keep from going overboard.

There are basically only three rules for any automations or smart appliances in our house:

  1. It needs to solve a problem, not create one.
  2. It can't only work by a voice command.
  3. It has to work "dumb" as well as "smart".

Solving Problems

Rule #1: Any smart home devices or home automations can only be added to solve existing problems, and not create new problems.

This rule seems like it ought to be simple. Why else would someone get a fancy new smart thermostat or light bulb or door lock or security system or pet feeder or… The list of possibilities gets really long, and it's often too easy for me to look at some new smart thing just go "Oh, that seems cool!" So the answer to "Why else?" is often just "to tinker" or "it looks fun."

But when it comes to installing new devices, "it looks fun" isn't a great threshold that things need to reach when other people are forced into the consequences of my own "fun projects." Especially when it's left in a half-baked state because I set the first project down in order to pick up the next one. So I try to make sure that whatever I'm adding will be something that improves our day-to-day, instead of just adding more clutter. It doesn't have to be a huge improvement, but it should add something.

Smart door locks and lights mean that I can turn on the lights and unlock my door whenever I get home from the grocery store, with the single push of a button. They also mean that we can get some peace of mind before we go to sleep because all of the lights are off, the doors are locked, and the security system is armed. A smart thermostat means that we can automatically turn the temperature down when we go to bed or while we're away, and slowly bring it back up while we're waking up, or if it's cold out and we're on our way home from a trip.

The other trick to note here is the last half of this rule[1]: "and not create new problems." This part is probably more self-explanatory than the first, but it's a helpful reminder to not tinker with things that would mess with the ordinary flow of the house. If an automation that were meant to play music when I walked into my office all of a sudden started going off at 3am because my cat set off a motion detector, that would be an issue. If the low battery reminder on my cameras sent me 15 push notifications in a 5 minute span, that would be another issue.

Of course with all of this, there is some space to tinker. In their "pre-production" phases, I like to make sure that any automations that get built have a few simple safeguards:

  • If they send push notifications, they only go to me at first.

  • If they make any kind of noise (e.g. playing music), they do so very quietly. Probably in my office, which means they won't bother anyone else and I won't even hear it if I'm not in there.

  • And if they're changing lights or temperature or similar, we start with small adjustments to make sure the rules are triggering without huge changes.

I also like to have really easy toggles to turn an automation off if for some reason it's not working, so that I can go back to designing it later without immediate interruption.

Honestly, if you're interested in creating home automations and don't follow either of the other two rules here, make sure you're at least following this one—especially if other people live with you. (The other rules mostly exist because of this rule, anyways.) Remember that these projects require other people in the house to interact with them as well, and they may not be as interested in your hobby as you are. 😉

Silence is Golden

Rule #2: Interacting with things via voice is ok, but it should not be the only method available.

This rule is honestly really simple. I think everyone has either read about or experienced a home where there's something covering a light switch with a sign that says "Don't turn off the switch! Just say Alexa, turn off the right side end table lamp in the second bedroom."

No one likes doing that. Even when uttered perfectly, each voice assistant will fail to understand the command from time to time. And that's only if I managed to say it correctly. Often, I'll wind up saying something like "Hey Google, uhhh please turn off the lights in uhh—what's this room—the kitchen. Oh wait I only wanted the one lamp."

Scenes can help with this somewhat. "Hey Siri, TV Time" is a lot easier than "Hey Siri, turn over the overhead light and dim the lamp to 30%[2]."

And even if all of the technological stars aligned: the command was uttered perfectly, the voice assistant interpreted it correctly, and the lights were set just right, sometimes it's just socially awkward. It can easily be misinterpreted as trying to talk to someone else in the house, or be an interruption to a conversation.

I will often set up scenes in HomeKit, and those scenes can be addressed with Siri. And often if my phone is across the room or I'm certain that my wife won't assume that I'm talking to her, I'll use the voice command. But there are too many situations at home where a voice command doesn't make sense to have it be the only way to trigger something, so anything that we add needs to be easily addressable in some other way.

Dumb Homes

Rule #3 Any "smart" devices that we have in the home should also function in a "dumb" way that still works.

Going back to the lightswitch example above, one of the worst things about the cover over the switch is that lightswitches are so easy. Basically anyone can figure out how to turn the lights on and off with a switch. It may take a little guesswork to figure out which switch to flip if you're not sure, but after that you can turn those lights on and off all day[3]!

To that end, I've tried to make sure that any lights we have in the house are addressable in multiple ways: from a phone, through a voice command, and through a switch on the wall. I try to make sure that the most intuitive way to address a device is still available. For lights, that's a light switch. For door locks, that means a key hole[4]. For a security system, it's the panel. To be fair, sometimes this isn't possible. It may be difficult to create some kind of "dumb" addressable input for a device. It may not make sense to have a switch for every lamp in a room (but it might make more sense to group some lamps under a single switch). This rule should be followed with a best effort, but isn't always a deal breaker.

In general, I've found the Lutron Aurora switch is a great, easy-to-install switch that you can mount on top of an existing light switch. It works with Hue bulbs and even has built-in dimming. I've also tried the Click switch from RunLessWire, but found it to be finicky at times. It can be mounted anywhere, though, and doesn't seem to need any kind of batteries. And finally, for more general purpose button, I've used a few of Aqara's Wireless Mini Switches.

Building new home automations can be a lot of fun! And I hope to document some more about the specific projects that I've done in my own house. But I also know that they can be unstable and a source of annoyance for other people that are forced to interact with them.

Following these rules has made it a lot easier to introduce small changes into the house without creating puzzles for my family and friends to solve. I hope they add something for you to think about when building your own automations.

  1. Technically this rule means that the first rule is actually two rules, I guess. ↩︎

  2. Assuming it can even really understand a sentence like that. Addressing two whole lights at the same time? That's impossible! ↩︎

  3. Don't turn your lights on and off all day, please. ↩︎

  4. The only products I've found that fit this are the Schlage series of smart locks. ↩︎