Home Automation Thoughts

I’m intrigued by home automation but I haven’t taken the plunge yet. Here are some thoughts on where I stand.

Internet of 💩

I follow @internetofshit on twitter for a daily dish of how internet connected devices fail their users in absurd and painful (and sometimes expensive) ways.

Generally speaking, devices that connect to the manufacturer’s servers are iffy. Servers go down or companies pivot or go out of business. Others may just want to push their newest offerings by sabotaging their older products. Sonos raised eyebrows earlier this year for wanting to purposefully brick part of its product line.

Unfortunately most off-the-shelf home automation things are basically a proprietary device that talks to the manufacturer’s servers. And if you’re lucky enough that it works and stays up for a few years, you also have to contend with what this means for your privacy.

Internet of 🕵️‍♂️

This is the age of surveillance capitalism and any device we have that is connected to some cloud server, whether it’s that manufacturer’s or something else is likely leaking data about our private lives to corporations.

Most of this happens by silently shuttling bits of data gathered by the device in any way it can: microphone, camera, motion sensors, and we have only a vague notion of what gets sent, who gets it, and where it goes after that.

Personally this irks me and I want to have as few such devices as I can live with. The problem with most typical IoT devices is that the “I” stands for “internet”.

We have a Google Nest thermostat that was installed in the house before we bought it. I have yet to connect it to the wifi, and I may never. The idea of giving big-G still more data about me is irritating. Then again that company probably already knows the genders of our future children, so I may be overreacting, but whatever.

Do I Really Want Automation?

I find a lot of home automation frivolous. Maybe I’m old-school, maybe I just need to experience it to change my mind, but a lot of things I see seem like more effort than they’re worth.

Some people have an automatic “movie mode” that dims the lights and turns on the TV, etc… That’s fancy, but does it make my life better?

Add the potential for breakage of a probably brittle system and it sounds like it quickly turns into a nightmare. I imagine these systems are one bad software update from “automatically” turning the lights on in the bedroom at 3am.

These are just my impression. I might be wrong. And despite all that there are some things I would like.

Some Home Automation Things I Want

Thermostat

I can get up to change the temperature, but it would be nice not to have to run downstairs to do that. Even better, some “smart” thermostats let you add environment sensors in different rooms with the promise that the temperature will be ideal for the room you’re in, not the hallway downstairs where the thermostat is.

Google’s Nest has one of the dumbest ones on the market so I’m unlikely to burrow further into that ecosystem. Hey that’s a good thing.

Cameras

We need to add a few security cameras to our new home. Some for outside and some to keep an eye on the kiddo.

I want to view the footage from my phone, but I don’t want this potentially private stream going far into the cyber universe outside my control. I’m bothered by all my neighbor’s Ring cameras and where that footage goes.

I worry about hacks too. The manufacturer’s servers and the device itself are potential avenues for problems. I may even want to prevent the stream from ever leaving the home network, but will the device let me?

Problem Detectors

Yesterday morning I found a small puddle of water on the floor in the kitchen. Confused, I opened the nearest cabinet to figure out where the water was coming from. That cabinet, which happens to be under the sink, was full of water. No major damage, but it reminded me of a good use case for IoT: sensors to detect problems before they get expensive.

I can imagine putting water detection sensors under all the sinks, by the water heater in the garage, and perhaps near sliding doors in case it rains. Now that would be worth it.

Home Automation Soup

Dejected by the surveillance capitalists I turn my nose at their offerings and dive into the DIY, open source, home automation community. I find tons of projects and there are people doing amazing things.

There is just one problem: it’s a total soup. I have no idea what’s what. The other day I saw a this tweet by Home Assistant creator Paulus Schoutsen:

After @andreadonno showed off the pn532 working with esphome I had to try. Spend the evening and with a lot of me bugging him on Discord.. but it is working now! Also able to scan cards with the rdm6300 as that would work with my existing Magic Cards cards. – @balloob

I do not know what he’s talking about. All I know is some highly experienced HA hacker took a long time to get something to work. This does not bode well for me.

I did figure out that ESPHome refers to a software thing that helps you run things that are powered by an ESP8266 or ESP32 chip.

Cool. So I know about a chip. I’m sure I’m just a few web searches away from figuring out how to have my phone notify me of a leaky faucet.

Look, this is a hobby. I would love to use FOSS and open devices and assemble it all using my own ingenuity, but it will take time that I don’t have right now. (At least not for another 93 days.)

Living In A Manual World (For Now)

Home automation will have to wait as long as I don’t want to hand more data over to various companies.

I have denied my thermostat a connection to its mothership, and I get some exercise by going up and down the stairs to tweak the temperature setting on hot days.

I pray my plumbing holds and I don’t forget to close a window.

It’s fine, for now.

This was day 7 of the #100DaysToOffload challenge.

Olivier Forget

Los Angeles, USA
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Aerospace Engineer turned sofware developer and bootstrappin' entrepreneur.