Using my home office as a smarthome experiment

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a chance to rearrange my office and set up a reading nook to create a productivity and relaxation haven. But I can’t help injecting a little bit of tech into all that so I’ve also used this as an opportunity to create a microcosm of a smart home in this one room. That lets me play with some neat gear without disturbing the rest of the home. Here’s what I’m using and the lessons I’m learning.

The thing about smart homes is that they are never really ‘done’. There’s always something to tweak, automate or optimise (what I call ‘optimising’ others may call ‘fiddling with’). So, this is really a work in progress report of what I have and how I use it.

The platform

The thing about home automation is that you need to pick a horse in the platform race. The three big players are

  • Amazon Alexa
  • Google Home
  • Apple HomeKit

The first two are quite open platforms; if you’re looking to do things on a budget, they are probably the platforms of choice. When you see a smart lightbulb at the supermarket (we have them in our local supermarket) they support Alexa and Home as they are the least expensive.

Apple HomeKit compatible gear tends to be a little pricier. I assume this is tied into the way licensing works and testing and certification the products undergo. And there’s the so-called ‘Apple Tax’ as well – the notion that people who use Apple products tend to have more disposable income so they’ll spend more simply to participate in the whole Apple ecosystem.

It’s worth noting that while most products boast compatibility with Alexa and Home, that doesn’t mean they’ll work with HomeKit. However, the majority of HomeKit-compatible gear will work with the other two platforms.

The other player to look out for is IFTTT (it’s short for ‘If this, then that’). It’s an automation platform that can link lots of different devices and applications together – even if they aren’t compatible with one of the three main players. For example, if you have a fitness tracker like a Fitbit, you could create an IFTTT recipe that turns the bathroom light on when you get out of bed in the middle of the night and then automatically turns it off after 10 minutes. 

There are other platforms around as well. But the challenge with those is they often rely on proprietary or less common communications system. The main players use WiFi – something most homes already have in place.
My smart office is using HomeKit-compatible gear. But everything I have will work with the other two platforms.

My gear

I have six pieces of smart home equipment in my office.

  • An Eve Room sensor that monitors temperature, humidity and air quality
  • A LifX Mini White globe in my reading lamp
  • A Nanoleaf lighting panel system
  • An Eve Energy power adaptor that I can remotely turn on and off that also monitors the energy usage at my workstation
  • A Sonos One smart speaker for listening to music and podcasts
  • A Nanoleaf Remote that I can use to turn things on and off and activate automations by simply moving it

The low-hanging fruit in any home automation and smarthome project is lighting. There are lots of different options to choose from. 

The Nanoleaf equipment was provided to me at no cost following a review I wrote for Lifehacker. When I need lots of light, I can set the panels to white and adjust the brightness using a smartphone app. Or, I can choose from a range of different ‘scenes’ as the panels can change colours with a tap of the app. 

But being able to say “Hey Siri, turn the office lights on at 35%” means I can have my office ready to go as I arrive. When I’m done, I simply say,”Hey Siri, turn the office lights off”

Using commands I programmed into the Nanoleaf remote, that I’ve named ‘The Nexus’, I can turn the lights on, or play music through the speaker, or turn my reading lamp on at 35% brightness.

I chose the LifX globe for my reading lamp because, unlike others like the popular Philips Hue, it doesn’t require an extra hub device. That’s something to look out for. Many home automation and smart home devices require some sort of hub device to act as a central controller.

So, while the light globe is quite pricey – the LifX globe I chose was about AUD$35 – that was all I needed to spend. If I’d gone down the Philps Hue or several other paths, I’d have to stump for a controller device as well as the first globe. That makes the cost of entry higher when starting out. 

A word about apps and software

The neat thing about Apple’s HomeKit platform is the way everything is easily integrated and brought into a single interface. I have the various smarthome devices in the office and a couple elsewhere in my home and having them organised into rooms in Apple’s Home app makes them easy to manage.

As everything is part of the one ecosystem, when I add a device to a room using my iPhone, it automatically appears in the iPad and Apple TV versions of the Home app. I can even control things from my Apple Watch.

But the apps that are distributed by the device makers are far more comprehensive. For example, while the Apple home app lets me turn the Eve Energy on and off, I need to use the Eve app to see my power use.
And that app also replicates much of the Apple Home functionality, although not as elegantly in my view.

Firmware updates are also handled through each device’s app – which is OK but could be better done if the firmware ware updates were pooled and handled centrally. 

What’s next

As I’m confining what I’m doing to a relatively small space, I haven’t yet ventured into a lot of automation. But that’s planned. I want to add an automated system to open and close the blind over my window and integrate that with my lighting via a sensor

What I want to do is have the blinds automatically open at 7:00am each morning and close about 30 minutes before sunset. When that happens, I want the Nanoleaf panels to turn on with soft light at about 40% intensity so I can keep working.

There are a few options for opening and closing the blinds but they all seem to require a hub of some sort. And that brings the cost up to several hundred dollars – that’s a cost that far outweighs the benefit to me at this time.

I’ll also add another smart power adaptor connected to my small office heater that will automatically turn the heat on when the room temperature cools down and switches off when I get to a comfortable level.

One of the big incentives is to also find ways to better manage energy use. The Eve Energy lets me see what energy is being used but I’d like to find ways to automatically turn things on and off so I reduce my energy use.