Home Automation

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Home automation is a hobby of mine. I’ve done a bunch of projects and I’m always on the lookout for the next one.

My SmartHome Vision

My SmartHome Vision

Back in the early 2000’s I dabbled with home automation using X10 devices. It was cool when things worked, but it was quirky at best and not something I’d want to outfit my house with. We’ve come a long way since then and the idea of creating a SmartHome is actually attainable now. Here are the guiding principles for what I want to accomplish and some of the the success criteria for my SmartHome projects.

Automate where it makes sense

My SmartHome should automate tasks that are repetitive or easy to forget. That could mean something completely automatic like turning off the garage heater when the overhead doors are open or something that requires a single button press instead of multiple like turning all the lights off before going to bed or leaving the house.

Here are examples of the kinds of things I want my SmartHome to do:

  • The lights in my utility rooms and closets should go on automatically when I open the door and turn off automatically when I close it.  The lights in my garage should go on automatically and stay on while someone is in there, but only if it’s dark enough to need them.
  • My thermostat should know when I’m going on vacation and adjust to save energy while I’m away. It should also know when I’m going to return and adjust to a comfortable temperature for my return.
  • When I watch a movie, the lights should dim when I press play, and if I press pause they should return to an appropriate level to allow easy movement without blinding me by going to full brightness. When the movie is over, they should gradually ramp up to allow my eyes to adjust rather than harshly turning on immediately.
  • My garden should be watered on a regular schedule, but if it’s rained sufficiently in the last 24 hours (or is currently raining) , it should be smart enough to skip the scheduled watering.
  • The exhaust fans in my bathrooms should be able to sense humidity and turn on automatically in case my kids forget to turn them on before taking a shower.

Monitor important things

My SmartHome should allow me to check what’s going on at my house even when I’m not there, and it should also be able to automatically alert me to things that need my attention. Before I go to bed at night, I want to know the garage doors are closed without going downstairs to check. If I’m on vacation in the middle of winter and the temperature drops below a certain point, I want to know so I can send someone to check it out before my pipes freeze and burst. If there’s water in my basement utility room from the sump pump, water heater or furnace, I want to know immediately so I can take care of the problem before it gets any worse.

Those are all examples of reactive monitoring, but I’d really like to be alerted proactively about potential issues. So for example, don’t tell me about the sump pump failing after it’s overflowed, tell me when the water level in the well rises above a certain point. Proactive monitoring can be a little more challenging to implement, but that’s where I really want to get to.

Access media from anywhere at anytime

The goal is to ensure that I can access music, photos, videos, movies and TV shows (live or recorded) from any TV or computer in my house. For example, if my wife has friends coming over, I should be able to pause a movie I’m watching, move upstairs, and continue watching it without having to fumble with discs and other physical media.

Additionally, if I want to show photos of my family to visitors, I should be able to pull up the most recent photos quickly, by month, year and tag on any device in the house. These devices should all pull from the same location for updated photos that are automatically categorized, tagged and stored right from my digital camera when I do an upload.

I also want the software that I do this on to be unaware of the storage of the media and not rely on mapped drives, etc. in order to access the content. The software should index the media and present it to me in a quick, searchable and easy to use fashion.

I should not have to experience outages or interruptions of service for my media. Lengthy backup schedules and periods where the media and resources are unavailable should be minimized or eliminated entirely. In other words, I want to be able to get at my media whether its 12 AM and I want to watch a movie or its 5 AM and I want to look at photos that I uploaded from the previous day.

Stop relying on physical media in all forms

I have begun to wage a personal war on all physical media. I prefer hard disk (solid state if possible) storage to optical media in almost every situation. I want the ability to access any music or movies from any media center or extender in the house. Additionally, I want to extend this access to my car’s rear entertainment system.

Since all of my media is on shared hard disk storage, my physical optical disks (CD’s, DVD’s) can just sit in a cabinet in case I need them at some point in the future.

Spousal acceptance factor

Big one here. My spouse has a very particular need to have things operate easily, intuitively and efficiently. She has little desire or tolerance for learning new technology and negative interest in investigating or troubleshooting when there is a problem. If something doesn’t work, she complains and calls me to fix it.

Thus, we both have a vested interest in making things easy for everybody to use.

My SmartHome should be easy and simple enough for everyone to use it without having to worry about where things exist, how they are connected and how to access them. The software should present options that are easily navigable (i.e., with a remote) so that it feels like she is operating an onscreen TV Guide with no knowledge of the complexity, storage design and network layout.

Have a safety net for everything digital in my house

My goal is to have a home infrastructure that leverages cloud concepts. This includes my computer(s) as well as the place where everything is centrally stored. The idea here is that even if something happens to the physical location where my home server lives, our memories and important documents and media will still live and be accessible to me.

Remote accessibility

I need the ability to quickly access not only my digital media, but also various files and computers on my home network. This includes being able to fix things or retrieve files for my wife as well as check on email accounts, reboot machines, install updates, etc.

This includes terminal service access to all machines on the network as well as any server infrastructure (home server, routers, etc.).

For example, I should be able to take photos, upload them to the photos directory on the home server and have my wife view them via media center, all while I am not in my house.

Another example is that I should be able to stream my playlists across the internet to my media player.

Rely on Cloud Computing concepts including Cloud services

Cloud computing is all the rage today and is dangerously becoming a cliché like social networking and service oriented architecture. Not that those concepts are cliché, but they are serious buzz words that get overused in almost every facet of business and technology. However, in my mind, this doesn’t diminish the concept and its importance.

I don’t want to have to rely on physical hardware for the storage and persistence of my important documents and media. I only want to use physical hardware (i.e., a computer) to access, change and remove content and not be solely responsible for storing it and keeping it safe. I follow this concept exclusively at work (using SharePoint, my internal My Site and network file shares). Thus, I can experience a catastrophic hardware failure and still be able to work and get access to all my critical documents. This concept gets a little difficult with files as big as virtual machines, but I have a cloud plan for those too.

Thus, I wanted my home to reflect this concept. Using technology, my home machines should be gateways to access and change information, but not be responsible for storing it exclusively. That way, if I experience hardware failure, or need to upgrade my OS by wiping down the hard drive, I can to that easily and without excessive consideration.

More importantly, the place where I do store my content, should be “cloud protected”. Just like my documents on my My Site at work or on the network file share are protected by frequent enterprise backups, my house should have the same capability. If something happens to the central repository (i.e., my home server) I should be able to rebuild and pull down any lost or damaged files from the cloud.

 

In upcoming posts I’ll outline how I’ve achieved My SmartHome Vision.