Home Automation: Inside a DIY Smart House

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[Photo: Courtesy Samantha Fisher]
Imagine a house where your appliances run themselves, where lights adjust without you having to get up, and where your snail-mailbox would send you a message when you get a package. It sounds like something out of The Jetsons, but thanks to some nifty home-automation technology, this is all possible today. (Talk about living in the future!)

Home automation (also known as "smart home") technology is the integration of electrical devices and one or more computer. These systems are often controlled remotely--you can use a smartphone or tablet, for instance. Most people use home automation for either added comfort or security, or to be more energy efficient.

Numerous companies offer to automate your home for a (sometimes hefty) fee. Home automation doesn’t have to cost thousands to install, though: With the right equipment and a little know-how, you too can assemble your very own home automation system.

Grad School Digital Imaging student Sam Cox from the United Kingdom has a great example of how beneficial home automating can be. He began automating his home from scratch a year ago to increase his home's security. Since, he has found himself adding more features to his system for both convenience and energy savings.

“On the security front I wanted something cheap, flexible and scalable, all without paying a monthly fee. Leaving electrical equipment on standby wastes an enormous amount of energy, so having your home automatically turn these appliances off when you go sleep and back on again when you wake up ultimately saves you money.”

At present, his home-automation system can perform a multitude of tasks. His custom-built security alarm system runs a set of IP webcams installed throught the house. The alarm can project audible warnings to the intruder, as well as record footage and email a still image.

[Photo: Courtesy Samantha Fisher]

Sam built other convenient home improvements, such as a system that wakes you up, gives you weather information for the day ahead, and alerts you of incoming email. In addition, his system lets him stream music into any room, turn on appliances, and dim lights. Sam used his old Mac Mini as a command system for his setup.The Mac Mini controls all of the home automation systems, andSam can access it from anywhere in the house using his iPhone and TouchaTag, an off-the-shelf Web-based RFID system.

“RFID is one area that I've worked hard on. It works in such a way that my home knows who's in and can adjust any settings such as the type of music being played or optimum light level accordingly.”

Using apps such as iAutom8, Sam can use his iPhone to control switches from anywhere in the house, as well as stream live footage from the webcams.

Sam adds: “Many home automation systems communicate through X10, this one’s slightly different. The system I use is called HomeEasy, which is a wireless (433MHz) interface. Singles are generated from an RFXCom Ethernet transmitter. Using Ethernet means that requests like turning your washing machine on can be sent from anywhere in the world.”

One of the biggest challenges of setting up home automation is coding all the appliances to work together, and Sam’s project is no different. Sam learned how to code everything as he went along, using other people’s AppleScript for similar projects, then adjusting them accordingly.

“Coding the morning wakeup alarm was the most complex as this basically wakes up the house--including me--with the current time and date, weather forecast, new emails, and leaving me with the radio streaming into any rooms I’m in.”

Although automating his house has cost Sam around $1200 so far, the end result has been worth the time and money. In Sam’s case, his house won't let him forget to reply an email or a calendar event, or let him burn his dinner. He also has the invaluable piece of mind from an apt security system.

Of course, there are also shortcomings. The Mac Mini can be quite slow due to its age. The IP webcams are also sometimes too sensitive, so even a change in natural light can trigger a false alarm.

Sam points out that in the near future he’ll be working on voice recognition, curtains that can open and close automatically, and improved “text-to-speech” functions.

Sam says that he has no idea when he’ll feel content with his home automation setup, given the constant evolution of technology. Technical advances make home automation both easier, more capable, and therefore even more compelling to try.

“My best advice would be just to start with some personal goals to make your life easier and start experimenting," Sam suggests. "If you want to get more advanced, buy an Arduino and follow tutorials online. Try and hack a simple program that listens out for a signal and relays codes to the Arduino to do something. This will help you understand basic computer programming and give you a solid platform to progress.

“Just mess around and have fun.”

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