The DIY delusion of Home Automation
An interesting article of doing it yourself Home Automation.
As someone who used to be a DIY'er, who moved on to be a professional, I can identify alot with this.
Guidance from a Geek who prefers to go-it alone
When I bought my modest 2,300-square-foot suburban home, I was pretty keen on the idea that I would automate it myself. Seriously, how hard could it be? Or, so I thought.
The typical person who gets the itch to automate their own home is a lot like me: technical and self-reliant. And possibly a little cheap.
I’m a technical guy. I’ve worked in software for several years, and I can get around most basic scripting or programming challenges. I used to build my own computers and perform hardware upgrades. I get into a lot of emerging tech trends; currently it’s electric vehicles and Internet of Things gadgets. So smart-home technology tickles my techie tendencies.
I’m also handy. I do a lot of my home’s upkeep and upgrade needs. I can replace a light switch, install a hardwood floor, replace a sconce or appliance, and patch a wall and then paint it. I call an electrician only when a job gets into really high voltage and amperage.
I’m something of a spendthrift. I don’t enjoy paying someone else to do something that I could do as well myself. In fact, I resent it...an attribute that sometimes tries my lovely wife’s patience.
If any of these qualities—technical, handy and thrifty—describe you, then you might be inclined to try automating your own home, just as I was. But before you dive into your own do-it-yourself debacle, allow me to share a few of my hard-earned discoveries from my own attempt.
Although it’s not a complete list of how DIY goes wrong, here are three of the common pitfalls that often foil a would-be smart home when done by a DIY enthusiast.
The Pitfalls of DIY
The inscrutable interface. One of the most recognizable aspects of a DIY “smart home” is that the only person who understands how to use it is the person who implemented it. We all have that gadget that presents a confusing array of cryptic buttons or a software application with an unfathomable user interface. Sure, it makes sense to the engineers who designed it. But for the average user, it’s just frustrating.
An automated home is much more complex than a single device or app. It integrates multiple devices and orchestrates them to work together. It takes the pile of entertainment remote controls and consolidates them into one, and then extends that control to lights, climate control, shades, door locks, the hot tub, the garage door, and…well, you get the idea. A smart home is one of the most complex systems there are. Making it simple to use is a complex task.
The DIY hobbyist typically ends up with an array of light switch buttons, entertainment system controls, and other interfaces that confound anyone but him or herself. For a spouse or family, this experience can cause, shall we say, “domestic friction.” And when you demo all the “conveniences” you implemented to guests, it leaves them less than impressed.
The work of professional installers gets you an entirely different experience. They aren’t mere techies, but more so user interface designers. They understand that technology is simply the means to automate a home. They apply their technical acumen, experience, and education to create a smart home that actually feels smart and leaves the homeowner with a system so simple and sensible that anyone can use it.
The Dis-integrated home
Directly related to the “inscrutable interface” problem is the tendency for few DIY automators to ever bring their various smart devices together to create a single integrated system. Just getting the shades or lights automated feels like a major accomplishment. My house is now automated! But the novelty of “there’s an app for that” wears out quickly when you have to launch a separate tool for each different subsystem of the home. The result is an experience that is disjointed for the owners and inaccessible to visitors.
To make this clear, let’s take another example. A Nest thermostat is, at first, fantastic. A Ring doorbell, convenient. A Sonos whole-home audio system, grand. Likewise, a network security camera or a Philips Hue smart light bulb. But each uses a separate mobile app. There’s no integration point between them.
Now apply that to the dream of a “smart home” as expressed by an evening at home. You come home to relax, pour a glass of wine, and read for a bit. Dimmed lights set the mood. The room warms or cools to your comfort. Your favorite music cues in the downstairs. And when someone comes to the door and rings the bell, the music pauses, the front porch light turns on, and your smartphone shows you who’s there.
A smart home makes all that possible with the press of a single button, maybe on a keypad on the wall, or from a single app in your hand. But with the usual smart devices that the typical DIY enthusiast installs, the setup requires a couple minutes of juggling between different apps to get everything set just right for relaxing. And then it’s another multi-app scramble when the doorbell rings.
My point here is that a smart home is not an archipelago of smart devices. That experience is frustrating even for the person who knows all the different apps. It’s impossible for the person who doesn’t. That’s why professionals use advanced home automation systems. By having an intelligence layer that connects a home’s various subsystems, the pro installer can orchestrate them to the homeowner’s lifestyle. The result is a qualitative difference that is immediately apparent. No more jaunty-jumping between disjointed interfaces. Things just work.
The Tranny of Expediency
Another common DIY mistake is corner cutting: time cuts, effort cuts, and cost cuts.
There is nothing wrong with the DIY homeowner seeking to save money by going DIY. Saving money is one of the major reasons we do things ourselves. And for most DIY projects, we can make up for inexperience through a wealth of online resources that demonstrate how to get the job done. Replacing a garbage disposal? You can find a hundred examples on YouTube. Fix an uneven subfloor? Flip through an inexpensive book from a home improvement superstore for several ways to approach it.
However, automating a home is different from most home improvement projects. It requires vast amounts of domain-specific knowledge, from how to get the best 3D sound for an Atmos theater to determining the best wireless sensors for detecting if a window has been accessed or a door has been left ajar. Without a background in this domain, you can’t assess the compromises you’re making until late in the project. That’s when the system won’t work as you want, and you’re stuck figuring out why not.
Here’s what I call the “everything wireless” path to failure. The rationale goes like this: “In this modern age of WiFi, I can just connect everything wirelessly!”
And the current world of devices presents you with a picture that makes it look like you really can. Just about every other device you might want to connect in the home—wireless speakers in various bedrooms, the Apple TV and audio/video receiver in the theater, the video doorbell at the front door, and the security cameras from Best Buy—can all connect to a WiFi network.
So you think, “Cables? We don’t need no stinking cables!”
It’s cheaper. You don’t need to buy Ethernet cables and switches.
It’s easier. You don’t need to run Ethernet cables through walls to hide them.
It’s faster. You probably already have the wireless router from your ISP set up and ready.
Sadly, you’re betting on the wrong horse. The vendors who make these solutions seldom consider that you want all these solutions to work at the same time.
So, movie night on the DIY system goes like this…
Your spouse sits down at to watch Netflix from the wirelessly connected smart TV. Your daughter starts a YouTube video on her tablet upstairs. Your son downloads a game to his laptop. The now-overloaded WiFi network chokes with demand and delivers nothing well.
A professional installer knows that the only devices that should use wireless are wireless-only devices. They specify a wired network for major bandwidth-consuming devices like an Apple TV, smart TV, or music streamer because they know that your smartphone or tablet have no choice but to use WiFi. Essentially, the professional installer clears the air for your best experience by designing a wired network tailored to connect any device that can use it.
Yes, a wired network will cost more, for the equipment, labor to properly run cables, and the effort to design for performance. However, its payback is in reliability and responsiveness you’d expect from an automated home. Like that of a crystal-clear, unpixellated Netflix movie night.
Most DIY enthusiasts will tell you that a vitally important part of home improvement is doing it right the first time. But home automation does not lend itself to achieving that goal. Professional integrators have learned through apprenticeship, experience, and, frankly, failing a lot along the way. There is simply no way for a DIY enthusiast to achieve that kind of background and expertise.
A Failure of Imagination
While we’re on that idea of domain-specific knowledge, let’s hit one other big way that that DIY often comes up short: you don’t know what you don’t know. If you have never lived in a properly automated home, you probably lack adequate context to understand what you really want. This was certainly the case for me.
Prior to having my home automated, I had the idea that “smart lighting” meant lights I could turn on or off by a schedule, or from a mobile phone. But I still saw my home as the switch and dimmer circuits it came with: kitchen overhead lights, counter pendant lights, family room lights, etc.
I didn’t have adequate context to understand that humans prefer lighting based on areas of use rather than circuits installed by an electrician. Most often when you go in the kitchen, you want the counter pendant lamps and the recessed ceiling lights to come on together. With a modern open floor plan, you may want the family room illuminated at the same time. Out of innocent naivety, the DIY enthusiast imagines that automation is the control of circuits. Consequently, they produce a quirky, gadgety interface: this button turns on this light, and that button turns on that light.
The professional thinks about setting “scenes.” They know that a kitchen serves different functions at different times:
A “Cooking” button turns on all the right lights to a relatively bright level, so you can actually see what you’re doing.
A “Cleaning” button turns them even brighter, so you can sterilize those nooks and crannies.
A “Homework” button dims most of the lights except where they’re needed, keeping the youngsters focused.
An “Entertaining” button dims the lights down and plays the “Party” playlist overhead.
Prescriptions for an aspiring DIY-inclined homeowner
The pitfalls I described above are just some of the ways a home automation project can go wrong when done by DIY rather than DIFM (do-it-for-me).
As fellow tech enthusiasts, most professional installers love sharing what they do. It’s their passion. Asking them to show you a project site or give you an idea of what you can do in your own home costs you nothing. One visit to a job site will open your eyes more than any further examples and admonishments I could lay out in written form.