Alexa and Home Automation
In the novel I’m writing, technomage Alex Rune uses a hacked version of Siri-like technology to cast spells. After checking with my early adopter friends, it was time I applied wizardry to my home. Smart Home tech can add up to be pricey, but you can build up in small purchases. Now I’ve done it, other people ask me about it, so I figured I’d blog it and kill two birds with one stone.
DIY vs. Hire-a-guy (or woman, it rhymed)
This article is not a detailed how-to on setup or wiring. If I find a few I’ll link them in the References later. Setting up Alexa itself is easy, millions of people have done it. Wiring up smart switches and outlets. That can require elbow grease bending wires back into gang boxes. Plus the whole electrical shock risk and city building codes to take into consideration. Only you can decide if you need to hire an electrician to do electrical work. I’m handy, and I have friends who are even handier so I could call them for advice. Google is chock full of articles and videos showing how to wire a switch.
Alexa vs. Apple & Google
I can’t tell you how well Apple’s Siri/HomeKit or Google Home’s system works. I don’t have them. So this article is biased toward what I have. I can tell you why I chose Alexa. We use iPhones in my house, Siri would have been a good pick if I used Siri and if there was a speaker thing like HomePod priced similar to Amazon’s stuff. It’s pricey and I don’t use Siri except to place calls. Since we are iPhone based, we don’t use Google except for web browsing on a computer. So I’m not invested in Google. We order from Amazon with Prime. My entire decision was based on what platform I already had and used and how that would benefit me further.
Hubs vs. Hubless
If you rent your home, the hubless light bulbs or outlet adapters might be a good option for automating, yet remaining easy to take with you when you move. However, each brand of hubless device has its own management app. Its own Skill module for Alexa. It can become a mess to manage. I own my home, I can install switch replacements. I planned on having a Hub.
If you have a smart security system (like ADT Pulse), you get a Hub in the hardware. The Hub talks to the switches and devices that speak Z-Wave or Zigbee. I’ll get to those two things in the next section. If you don’t have a Hub, consider a Samsung SmartThings Hub or Amazon Echo Plus. The former is a Z-Wave Hub, the latter has a Zigbee Hub built in. I relied on my ADT Pulse system’s Hub, saving me some money. Also, the Echo Plus didn’t exist when I started.
Z-Wave vs. Zigbee
These two names are protocols for talking to Smart Home devices, like light switches, cameras, locks, etc. My ADT Pulse rig uses Z-Wave, so the choice was made for me before I realized the difference. To the average user, either one works fine, but they don’t work together. I think that Amazon bundling a Zigbee Hub into their Echo Plus means they’ve chosen a side in the format war, which might not bode well for Z-Wave’s future. I’m not so worried that I didn’t buy a more Z-Wave stuff, but I point it out to anybody who’s getting started and doesn’t have a Hub to consider the Echo Plus as their foundation piece and thus go with Zigbee.
What’s it good for?
I got into this Smart Home project just in time for the Amazon Prime Day sale. I asked all my friends what they had and used it for. The most common answer was to check the weather. I’m told normal people care about such things so they can dress accordingly. Weather not being of great concern to me, I found a few more compelling uses.
Turn on all the lights when the alarm goes off
By automating a light in each room, I setup up a trigger to activate them when the alarm goes off. Handy should something scary happen at night.
Turn on the lights before I get there
When I get home, I can disarm the alarm, unlock the front door and turn on the lights in rooms I need from my car. This makes it easier to bring in groceries after being gone for the day
Lock the door automatically when I activate the security system
I cannot remember how many times I’ve come home to find that my door was unlocked. Now, when I engage the alarm system, the doors lock.
Make it look like somebody’s home while I’m out
I can setup a sequence so it looks like I cook dinner, eat it, do stuff in the living room and then get ready for bed. The radio is setup on an outlet switch, so that runs all day for background noise for the animals, and so bad guys think somebody’s home.
Listen to a bedtime story
If you say “Alexa, tell me a bedtime story” it will read your current Audible story to you. We discovered this when I was playing around with it before bed the first night and it’s a nice way to settle down for the night.
Unlock the door when you’re bedridden
The initial impetus for all this tech was that my wife was going to be stuck in place after her foot surgery. It really did happen that a friend came over while I was out, and she needed to let them in.
Set timers for cooking and laundry checking
It is really easy to set many timers with Alexa. Great for cooking, and doing laundry.
Alexa in the bathroom?
If you’ve got any timers you need for special shampoo or bubble-bath time this could be handy. Or music or news during the morning prep. Like checking the weather, this didn’t seem a big deal to me, but the wife seemed to favor it, so I’ll stick a Dot in there and call it good.
Say “Alexa call the Kitchen” and the unit in the Kitchen will ring for somebody to pick up. No more having to yell across the house.
Turn on the Christmas Lights
I bought the outdoor module and plugged all the lights into it. Now, from 6PM to midnight, the lights come on and go off. I don’t have to remember to plug them in or unplug them during the holiday season.
Make it colder for your hot wife
If you don’t have a hot wife, maybe this will still be useful. Right after I get settled down with a blanket and a dog, my wife tells me she’s too warm. Which in the old days meant undoing all that snuggly goodness and walking over to the thermostat. We don’t keep our phones right by the bed, so at night time, even a smart app means getting up. With Alexa, she can just tell the thermostat to make it colder. Everybody wins.
Amazon Stuff For Every Room
My goal was to have voice command in every room, but not break the bank. I used the sales to buy what I need in smaller batches. I recommend Dots for less important rooms like a bathroom or office. If you have a stereo, a Dot can be connected to that (cable or bluetooth). Otherwise, get an Echo for rooms you entertain in, so the sound is better. And Echo Spot for the bedroom means you have a nice clock by the bed that accepts voice commands. It’s sound quality is between a Dot and an Echo. I put an Echo in the kitchen, but a Dot or Echo Show would work. The Show would allow you to view recipes while you cook.
Personally, I started with two Echoes via Prime Day sale. Then rearranged as I ordered a trio of Dots from the Black Friday sale. I’ve got two rooms left to solve, depending on what I order, that’ll shift things again. You could save up and spend $100-$200 per order and make good progress without breaking the bank.
Switches and Such
In order to control the lights, I needed GE Z-Wave Switches. These were about $40 a piece. They add up quick when you consider one per room. If you have lamps, there’s a plug-in module you can buy for around $40. I was surprised to find the the outdoor version was cheaper. These are the backbone of home automation.
My goal was to have one light per room automated. Most of my rooms have light switches, so I ordered batches of smart switches. I got faster at wiring them up after the first few. To start small, look at the most important rooms to turn lights on when you come home. For me, that was the bedroom, kitchen and living room. Now I’ve extended that with another order.
What’s in a name
What you call things determines the command you’ll issue in Alexa. You might use bedroom, kitchen, office, living room. If your kid is named Bob, label his as Bob’s room. Thus I would say “Alexa, call Bob’s room.” to start an intercom call to Bob in his room. Making the names distinctive and obvious helps for remembering and saying these commands.
I named each switch after the room it was in, with the word “Light” appended to the end. That way, I could say, “Alexa, ask ADT to turn on the Living Room Light.” I’ll get to why I have to say “ask ADT” in a little bit. For now, let’s just say that the product you use for a Hub affects the language you have to use.
You need to avoid name collision with the Echoes and the devices and sensors your alarm system has. ADT called each alarm sensor by the room name, so I renamed them to have Sensor on the end. This so I could all my KwikSet lock “Front Door”, thus enabling, “Alexa, ask ADT to lock the Front Door.”
Skill vs. Smart Home Skills
Alexa calls the third party add-ons Skills. These can play Jeopardy and tell you dog jokes and more. You invoke them by saying the wake word, then “ask” or “tell” followed by the name of the Skill or its keyword, followed by the actual command it knows how to handle. So to use my ADT Pulse Hub, I have to say “Alexa, ask ADT to turn on the kitchen light”
That’s pretty dumb. Because it’s a Skill, not a Smart Home Skill. I’m not up on the exact details of programming for Alexa, but it’s obvious there’s two categories, Skills for basic add-ons by vendors and the good stuff Smart Home Skills. Developers at ADT’s competitor, Vivint, wrote their add-on as a Smart Home Skill. Like Samsung’s SmartThings Skill. Or native commands to Echo Plus’s Hub. This means you get a front row seat and direct connection to say “Alexa, turn on the kitchen light”
It’s the one thing I hate about my setup, and I’m stuck with it because ADT doesn’t seem to know they coded the lame skill when they should have written a Smart Home Skill. When you are considering shopping for a Hub, keep this in the back of your mind by looking at the Smart Home section of the Alexa app and seeing if your vendor has a listing there. Look at the example text and notice the ones that have easier commands (like SmartThings). I could get a different brand Hub, but then I won’t be able to automate based on events from my alarm system. The best solution is for me is ADT to invest in updating to a Smart Home Skill.
Note: if you work deep in the bowels of ADT to make that happen, I’d love to talk to you. I’ve quite a few ideas for you, free of charge. :)
There’s some people who are afraid this means Big Brother is watching, etc. Here’s a test for you to prove the danger. Go fetch a packet sniffer and connect it to your router and run a trace on all traffic from your Echo unit. Monitor the flow while speaking normally, issue a command and silence.
Now if you have no clue what I meant, let alone how to do it, you’re afraid of what you don’t know. It’s been tested. If Amazon was listening to you all the time, you’d probably run out of data on your internet plan. Actual hackers looking to hit you specifically would be more likely to phish you with something in email or social media or drive by your house and hack your wi-fi network directly.
The commands to disarm the alarm or unlock the door require passwords if Alexa can even hear you. Plus you can disable those. Buying stuff can be set to require a password, or specifically recognize your voice. So the most a bad guy can do is toggle your lights while yelling at your door.
Is it possible some vulnerability could come up? Sure. But I can also learn how to pick locks from YouTube or kick your door in like Mythbusters demonstrated, or jam your cellular modem on the alarm with a $50 jammer, or cut through your wall with a chainsaw. Most bad guys are not that sophisticated. You’ll be fine.
I just finished wiring up my last order of switches. It’s almost like being on the Enterprise, except Majel Barret sounds like Alexa. There’s a lot more I can do with the system, which I’m figuring out. Let me know in the comments, any questions, or advice, products to look at.
Here’s links to all the parts I used or referenced:
Samsung SmartThings (I don’t have this but my friend does)
GE Z-Wave Plus light switches
GE Z-Wave Plus 3-way light switch kit
Amazon Echo (gen2)
Amazon Echo Spot
Amazon Echo Show
Kwikset Smart Lock
Nest Thermostat E (not sold on Amazon, but price is same everywhere else)
GE Z-Wave Plus Outdoor outlet adapter
GE Z-Wave Indoor outlet adapter
Note: the switches and lock I list are all Z-Wave. While searching for these links, I see the same vendor has ZigBee equivalents. Also, as I write this, the sales are over and the Amazon products are all $20+ more expensive. Watch for the sales and save money.