Home automation to save money and/or save time

Over the past couple of years I have added more and more to my home automation setup. Mostly, this is out of convenience, but some of it surely has saved me money as well. Here’s a brief description of my setup and why I find it useful.

Hub - Samsung SmartThings. Zwave, Zigbee and wifi connectivity. Lots of built in connectivity and lots of community support since the platform is extensible via third party apps.

Lighting - The dimmers/switches in my house did not support LEDs when I moved in. I ended up replacing them with Lutron Caseta dimmers/switches. I have remotes for certain lights, most conveniently, the master bed light which my wife or I can control via remote from bed.

My outside lights turn on at sunset and off at midnight, so I never have to think about it. My downstairs lights come on automatically when someone comes home, so they don’t walk into a dark house. My outside decorative lights can now be turned on via app or Alexa, so no more going outside to turn them on/off.

Security - I have open/close sensors on my doors and motion sensors in my home. Also, have Foscam C1 cameras set up as cameras. They also have the ability to be motion sensors, but I haven’t set that up yet. SmartThings can automatically “arm” the system when I leave and notify me if any doors open or motion sensors go off. I do this instead of paying a monthly fee for security. Obviously, there are limitations versus a monitored security system.

Thermostat - I have an Ecobee thermostat with a remote sensor in the master bedroom. Allows me to easily set/change a program and control remotely.

Irrigation - I have a wifi irrigation system that takes temperature and precipitation into account when deciding how much to water. I previously had a programmable (non-connected) controller, but the “smart” one is so much more convenient since I rarely have to think about it at all.

TV/Entertainment center - This is controlled via a Harmony Companion/Home Control and it integrates with SmartThings. I have a rule set up to automatically turn off the entertainment system at 1am in case anyone forgets to turn it off.

Voice control/Alexa - Almost all of this is controllable by voice via Alexa. It’s convenient to be able to set the temperature, dim the lights, turn on/off or pause the TV, etc.

Future ideas/expansion - I don’t have any door locks connected yet, since I don’t think they are 100% ready for prime time, though they have gotten better. Don’t have a video doorbell or similar, though that looks interesting to me.

I would guess that this setup has cost me about $900 (including Caseta dimmer switches and LED light bulbs). Direct savings include about $20/mo for the dimmers/LED lights, about $2-300/yr for water saved via the irrigation setup. Indirect savings include not paying a monthly fee for a security monitoring service.

Would love to hear what others are doing and also happy to answer questions anyone has.

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I think an important piece of information people often forget to add, for context, is the size of your home and number of occupants (and perhaps their age ranges).

The reason I say this is because all of that sounds great to me, but I live in a condo and not a house. I do have some wifi cameras setup, but see no need for the lighting (since switches are in close proximity to doors, rather than across a large living room or kitchen), obviously no need for irrigation, and the thermostat is an Ecobee but since condos have such horrible airflow, it doesn’t really help much.

I assume you have a house, with a yard on all four sides, hence the need for outside lighting and irrigation.

It’s just my wife, myself, our 9-month-old daughter, and the dog. We’re all home nearly 24/7 because she’s a SAHM and I work from home. There are no teenagers coming and going where auto lighting would be convenient, or kids who may forget to turn off the TV/receiver, and we’re always in close proximity to our phones that we don’t need Alexa anywhere. I had an Echo and returned it because I felt it was too big of an “appliance” to leave anywhere where it was relatively hidden but also accessible/useful. Not to mention, we don’t need to tell Alexa to turn on the living room lights when the switch is a mere few feet away from the couch.

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Yes. I have a house with a yard. 3 br/3 ba. 2 adults. We both work and travel for work.

For some of the Alexa stuff, it’s not the biggest life changer in the world to be able to control things remotely, but for $40, the Echo Dot sure does add a lot of convenience. The ability to turn kitchen lights on/off while my hands are dirty from cooking, the ability to turn lights on when I have grocery bags in my hand, the ability for my wife to dim the lights when she’s on the couch working, with the laptop on her lap and not having to interrupt her flow. All things that are not absolutely necessary, but certainly are convenient.

And yes, a lot of this is more convenient in a home versus a condo/apartment.

This is a very accurate counter-point. Like most purchases, you need to weigh the pros and cons. For us, being able to turn our beside lamps on from the bathroom so we can see without breaking our toes was a great investment. Having the echo’s hooked up to our home theater systems for music was also nice.

I initially got started because I couldn’t get my wife to actually turn lights or the stereo off when she was done with them. So I automated them. It has grown from there because I’m an engineering nerd.

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For the record, I’m not bashing it at all. I actually think home automation is really cool stuff, and I’m a gadget nerd so it all appeals to me. I just don’t see the practicality in a condo, apartment, or even a small home.

I also think the fact that you have someone home all the time also reduces the value. When I was in my condo, I definitely would have installed a wifi lock on my door so I could let in building management and service folks. With both of us working, we just can’t have someone home for those kinds of things.

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We use a Wifi thermostat. The main savings vs. a non-internet connected one are when we travel. I can just keep settings lower and simply revert back to the regular schedule when we’re about to take our last flight back. It’s neat and convenient but I would not over-emphasize the savings vs. a more standard programmable thermostat. But it was virtually free via utility company discount so why not.

The Echo Dot is another that is a low-lying fruit IMO. Got one for $30 and after a few Alexa offers, a few add-on items ordered without reaching the $25 minimum, it’s paid for itself. It’s nice to have for a few tasks in the house when you don’t want to reach for your phone, etc. but stuff like using it to turn off light a couple of minutes early than you would otherwise is not really a tangible money saver. Especially when you factor in the cost of using smart bulbs vs regular LEDs.

The rest for me is more on the convenience than on the money saving side. Irrigation sounds great but the cost of the system vs a dumb sprinkler that you just set now and then (we don’t need to water all that often around here), is just too high to justify the convenience. Plus it’d be just another excuse to stay in front of the computer when you’d otherwise have a chance to step outside.

Overall, for our house ~2500 sq. ft. 4B/2.5B and working at home most of the time, some minor automation is worth it but a lot of it seems like the premium for minor extra convenience is just not worth the added cost. But I expect that with time, convenience will increase and costs will decrease so the whole value proposition could change soon.

Home automation for us is huge on convenience but it’s an expensive hobby. $20 here for a motion sensor, $30-40 there for a z-wave switch/dimmer and it really adds up.
Some of my favorite automations are the most simple. If the front door (Schlage z-wave lock) is unlocked after sunset, the table lamp in the living room (Osram Lightify zigbee bulb) turns on so it’s not dark when we open the door. If you walk into the kitchen at night, a motion sensor will turn on the under cabinet lights.
We have wifi thermostats but have no real need to add additional automation beyond our daily schedule. The only time I open the apps for them is to turn them off when we leave for a trip. I don’t feel something like a Nest is worth the extra cost just for some presence sensing abilities. We also have an old home with a boiler system so a Nest constantly adjusting the temperature to what it thinks is saving energy probably won’t help us save money.

I’ve actually invested quite a bit of effort into setting up some home automation, but my personal view is that the current systems are not ready for prime time. The five biggest issues I see are:

  1. Too many incompatible systems out there and too much incompatibility between even supposedly compatible devices.
  2. Too many glitches in the hardware or range (mostly just poor quality components).
  3. Too much chance of a cloud service being hacked.
  4. Lack of value (well placed light switches are equally good I think and more reliable, but our house is only 2,000 sq. ft.).
  5. Price. Most components are way too expensive ($200 for each lock and $40 for each motion sensor or door sensor quickly adds up).

That being said, I’ve found several very nice uses:

  1. Locks/doors: My wife and I are both a bit OCD about making sure all doors are locked. We installed the Schlage Z-wave locks. The lock part of the locks is great and actually being able to use numbers instead of keys is the best thing about it. The wireless part is buggy and not 100% reliable, but it’s good enough (with enough custom development) to be able to tell when the locks are locked/unlocked.
  2. Irrigation: we grow lots of vegetables and perennial plants and for various reasons have 5 zones set up all of which have different types of plants. I put together a custom controller that uses recent irrigation amounts, rainfall, and evapotranspiration rates (the latter two from the local university weather system) to decide how much to irrigate every day. Compared to modifying 5 times manually on a daily basis, it saves a lot of time.
  3. Outdoor motion detectors: we installed a bunch of low voltage path lighting, but the only motion detectors I’ve found are for things like security lights (120V and mounted on the light). I put together a number of detectors that are mounted away from the lights (e.g., near the roof for a path along the side of the house) but that turn on the appropriate lights as needed.

That being said, this was all a lot of work (both hardware and software development) and not for everyone. I’m guessing in 5 or 10 years most of these issues will be fixed in the commercially available items.

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I love the vegetable garden irrigation idea. I never really thought about that–like a mini farm crop. That’s useful and I would definitely do it for that. However, for my lawn, I wouldn’t.

Agreed. For most systems, if you’re not a tinkerer/willing to tinker, I wouldn’t recommend you rush out and get this installed. But now that things are set up, I don’t think about the setup much except for changing out batteries in the sensors.

That said, there are professionally installed systems that are generally more reliable that are also much more expensive and usually not as extendible/flexible.

I was initially worried about how often batteries would have to be changed but that turned out to be a non-issue. I bought one of the Monoprice Z-wave plus motion sensors in November last year and have had it mounted outside the entire time, the battery is still reporting at 90% even today. The Schlage Z-wave lock I’ve had for the same length of time is still showing 83% and that gets operated at least twice daily.

I have been considering about these devices and have some concerns:

  1. Since they use wifi, would they make the internet slower?

  2. Too many wireless signals 24/7 may not be good for human health.

Any feedback?

The bandwidth the wifi devices need is exceedingly small. They won’t noticeably impact your internet speed.

Many of the devices use Zwave or Zigbee which shouldn’t interfere with your bandwidth.

These are very low power signals and unlikely to cause health problems.

Thank you for the information. Does SmartThings use Zwave and Zigbee?

I’m looking to start home automation, hoping for some good price in Black Friday.

I have Echo/Alexa as well as google home, in a 2 stories house.

Where should I go first?

Thank you!

Very interesting use of automation there. I was thinking more in terms of watering a basic lawn but for a vegetable garden with diverse needs per zone, I can totally see some great arguments for it.

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SmartThings has Zwave, Zigbee and wifi radios. I have mostly used Zwave devices since that standard seems a little more universal. Some of my devices connect via wifi (Ecobee, Lutron switches, Harmony hub).

Before I suggest where you start, what problems are you trying to solve? Home automation covers a lot and I can help focus your search if I understand what you are looking to do.

This is the reason I have a bit of a hard time getting into it, condo or not. I just don’t see any problems I need solving. I guess if I were to buy a super old house with wiring that had an old and not thought out layout, it may be of some use. But if that were the case, a rewiring would be probably more ideal than worrying about home automation.

The one thing, automation wise, that I really have always liked is blinds. Whether that is a simple up/down button, or also had automation built in to open/close the blinds at certain times, it would be cool. That’s probably one of the most tangible “automatic” features of high end homes that I’ve always liked.

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We originally got a smartthings hub at home for the moisture sensor by the hot water heater in case of a leak.
Since then I have added motion detectors, door & window switches and recently smart plugs and an Amazon Alexa hub.
Since I like to tinker it is a fun little project that can be done at my own pace.
My young daughter likes that she can turn lights on and off thru the Alexa voice commands.
When we go away for the weekend it is nice to turn on the alarm settings and get a text if there are any problems.
Also the smart plugs work with my grow lights in the winter.

Had WINK lying around for a year and had to send back for the update. Ringdoor bell, Alexa and couple of wemo, harmony remote & Honeywell thermostats. Do have separate indoor outdoor camera to validate the remote functions. Sometimes I HATE this ( Wife switches TVs & Lights from upstairs when watching late) but most of the time, its convenience.