Home Automation Gift Guide

Home Automation Starter Guide

Everyone is talking about home automation.  You know, stuff like turning your lights on and off from your phone and stuff like that.  I’ve put together a starter home automation gift guide with 4 items that will work seamlessly together and get you started quickly and easily!

What I like most about home automation stuff, it that when done properly it works effortlessly, behind the scenes.  You don’t need to see fancy control panels, or wires everywhere, or anything.  All these products work with Amazon Alexa, as well as Apple Home Kit, so you have full control by voice, phone, and even Apple Watch!

Thermostat – Ecobee3 Lite Smart Thermostat.  First of all let me say that I love the look of Nest products, especially their thermostat.  But for everything to work well together, the need to speak the same language, and Nest speaks a different computer language than most products).  So I’ve selected the Ecobee 3 Thermostat.  It has a great modern design, and has tons of features that will save you energy as well as keeping you cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Lock – the August Smart Lock is different than most smart locks – not only do you get control from your phone, but because of the way it is installed (from the inside), people coming to your door won’t know you have a digital look because they can’t see it.  You can provided timed access such as making sure your door locks every night at 8:00 before bed, or provide a PIN number to your parents that are coming to visit so they can come and go as they need.

Lights – If you are like me, you are at IKEA almost as much as you go to Home Depot or Lowes.  That’s why I’m selecting the Ikea’s TRÅDFRI lights.  For less than $80 you get 2 LED light bulbs, a controller, and a remote switch.  They can be controlled from Alexa, as well as Apple Home Kit.   Another feature I really like is  that you can dim them so  they aren’t so bright.  Finally you have the ability to select from 3 color temperatures: 2200 Kelvin (warm glow), 2700 Kelvin (warm white) and 4000 Kelvin (cool white), depending on your style and taste.

Alexa – In order to be able to control these items by voice – you need something that responds to voice commands – I’ve selected the Amazon Echo Dot.  For $30 you get full Alexa Control.  Just say “Alexa – lock the front door” and watch the deadbolt turn.

Getting Started with Home Automation

Lately all I’ve been hearing about are smart things.  You know those little gadgets that turn lights on and off, or announce the temperature at the beginning of the day.  So I decided to  jump in and write a little guide about getting started with home automation.  I’m no expert on this stuff, just somebody who is extremely interested because some of this home tech is just so cool.  I plan on updating this post as I learn more, and add items to my house.

All this stuff can  be super confusing.  It’s like learning a whole new language – smart hubs, z-wave, homekit, hub, zigbee, bluetooth, Alexa, IoT, there are dozens if not hundreds of terms to learn.  I know I’m going just a bit crazy trying to keep up on this stuff.  Hopefully I’ll be able to simplify it for you.

As of right now, I only have two items in my that makes my house a smart house.  The Nest Protect Smoke Detectors and an Echo Dot.  As for the smoke detectors, I bought them first because I liked the Nest brand, and I had plans to add their thermostat and cameras later.

But as I began to learn more I discovered that the language Nest uses to talk to each other, called Thread isn’t the most popular for home automation and control.

Z-Wave is becoming the industry leader and pretty much every other company uses it.  So if you want to add deadbolts, or lights, or other controls, you probably want to go with the most popular protocol, go with Z-Wave.

Basically Nest products only talk to Nest. Yes, there is a way to extend the functionality, but I’m all about simple, and from what I read it isn’t simple to do that yet.

I also have an Echo Dot.  You know the kind where you say “Hey Alexa – what time is it?”

Right now there are a few things I do with Alexa – mostly they are pretty simple.  Play 20 questions, ask what the weather is like and try to make sure I don’t order anything expensive on Amazon.

Most recently I connected Alexa to Pandora, so now I can play pretty much any music I want by simply saying “Alexa play Everything is Awesome”

But the Nest protect and Alexa don’t “talk” to each other.  That’s sad.  It’s because they don’t speak the same “language”  The Nest is Thread, and Alexa uses Z-wave.

Since I have plans on automating all these things I want a system that uses the same language.  For me that will be w-wave.

  • Lights in every room
  • Fans in every room
  • Thermostat
  • Doorbell
  • Blinds, curtains, and window coverings
  • Mailbox alert
  • Outside Cameras
  • Door Locks
  • Garage Door
  • Flood sensors – Air conditioner and laundry rooms
  • Sprinklers outside dependent on weather.

As for now I’m doing a lot of research, and learning exactly what is needed to do each of the above.

Is any part of your home a smart home?  What have you done?  I’d love to know in the comments below.


Nest Smoke Detector

Starting with the phrase “Protection shouldn’t be annoying”, the creative inventors at NEST have done it again.  First they made  the Nest Thermostat (click here for the video), one that actually saves you money on your energy bills, and us uber stylish, and now they come out with a smoke detector that is equally as great.


Have you seen the new Nest Smoke Alarm?

Have you ever set off the smoke detector while cooking? I know I have.  When the darn thing goes off, I reach up (I’m 6+ feet tall) and twist the shrieking detector right off the ceiling, and take out the battery.  Sometimes I go to bed before remembering to put it back, and that is a huge no-no.  In fact over 70% of smoke detectors fail to go off because of missing batteries or some other reason.

Or, how about hearing that chirp, chirp, every few minutes when there is a low battery.  First you have to find which one is actually making the noise, and then I do the exact same thing.  Take it down, remove the batteries, and go unprotected for up to a week while I find time to hook it back up.

Well, no more.  With the new Nest Protect, all the old problems of a smoke detector go away, using a little technology, and some cool modern styling.

How the Smoke Detector Works

The smart people at Nest have separated the detection part from the alarm part and made a bunch of no-brainer improvements.  It uses both color, sound, and a human voice to let you know there is a problem.  Detecting both Smoke, as well as the odorless and colorless CO2 gas.

If you have multiple units they all link together via Wi-Fi, and you can even monitor them from your cell phone.  It’s a new take on an old technology.

Nest Smoke Detector Colors

The Nest Detect comes in two colors, black and white.  You can get the white one anywhere (Like Amazon.com), but you can only get the black one from the Nest website (see link at end of article.)

Nest Ring Colors - blueThe Nest detector also has a special LED ring on it that changes color based on the situation.  Most old smoke detectors only have a little red light that flashes every so often.

Not the Nest.  It’ has a large colored LED ring that changes color based on the situation.

  • No Color – Most of the time the nest smoke detector doesn’t light up.  That’s OK.  It’s still is working properly.
  • Blue ring – The blue light shows that Nest Protect is active and ready to be connected or tested.
  • Green ring – It is green immediately after setup to show everything is OK.  It also turns green immediately after you turn off the lights for a few minutes signaling that is is active and ready.  Also, it will turn green after an alarm showing that things are returning to normal.
  • White ring – This is the nightlight feature, and comes on when the room is totally dark, to briefly light your way.  This feature is called Pathlight, and is really cool.  I’m guessing the people at Nest have a new product based on this coming soon.
  • Yellow ring – This is a pre-alert – notifying you by both color and voice, that something is up.  It may be that the batteries are low, or it could be that there is an actual fire.  Either way, the color helps you to know what is going on.
  • Red ring – The red light means that Nest Protect has detected dangerous levels of smoke or carbon monoxide. A red light is accompanied by a loud alarm sound and a voice alert telling you what and where the danger is.

How the Smoke Alarm Works

The Nest unit has a two stage alarm, as well as using a real human voice, and colored lights to tell you what is going on.  Old style smoke detectors just make a crazy loud beep.  Not the Nest detector.  It first tells you, in English, that there is a problem, using clear easy to understand language:  “There is smoke in the hall”.  If you have just burned a steak, you can wave your hand at the unit to dismiss the alert.

If however it is a real fire, the notification will escalate, and a loud alarm (one that you expect from a smoke detector) will go off, alerting you where the fire is, and telling you to get out.

It also uses the red color to tell you that either there is smoke or high levels of CO2.

Smoke Detector Batteries

You can get either a battery operated one, or one that runs off 120 volts.  Most houses use a battery operated smoke detector, but I actually have one in my hallway that is hardwired.  I put one in every bedroom (where people sleep), plus one in the hall, one in the family room, and one near my furnaces.

Installing the Nest Protect

Other Cool Features

If you have more than one Nest Smoke Alarm, or a combo of the Thermostats and smoke alarms, they all talk to each other and work together.  What?  How is that possible?  Let me explain.  Say one of the smoke detectors signals there is smoke.  The Nest system works together, alerting you, and turning off your furnace in the case of an alarm.

Plus, if you have more than one detector, they all work together.  One in the kitchen senses smoke, it will signal the one in the hall or bedrooms telling you that there is smoke in the Kitchen (even if your Wi-Fi is down).  Very Very Cool.

Where to buy a Nest?

If you are looking for one, the best place to get it is Amazon.com: Nest Protect Smoke + Carbon Monoxide They are most likely to have them in stock, and ship really fast so you can have one in just a couple of days with no hassle.  If you want a black Nest, you have to order it right from Nest.com.

NEST Energy Saving thermostat

Nest Thermostat on CBS Sunday Morning.

Did you watch the video?  Pretty cool ‘eh?  Did you see the part where you can control it from your iPhone?  I know.  I want one, too.

Nest Thermostat ScheduleThe idea is amazingly simple:  just use the Nest thermostat as you normally would.  Turn it up if you want it warmer, or down if you want it cooler, using the ring on the outside .  Inside, is a tiny computer that learns what you like.  It has a built in motion sensor, so it knows when you are home or away.    There’s even a lock feature to prevent others from teaching it.

You can find it on Amazon.com. Buy the Nest Thermostat

Nest iPad AppI think it even has some sort of built in Wi-Fi so you can control it from you iPhone or iPad.  You can check out the Nest app on the iTunes store.  Forget to turn off the A/C before your 2-week family vacation?  You can adjust it from your car.  Are you coming home late from a show with some friends and worried about a cold house?  Turn it up before you get home.  There are a ton of helpful tutorials on their blog, if you want to learn more about it before you buy one.

I’ve ordered one, but it hasn’t come yet (it’s on back order) so I can’t share my experiences with you.  As soon as it does, I’ll show you how it works.

Since the design isn’t for everyone, there are alternatives out there.

One is the Free Thermostat provided by Austin Energy. Not nearly as design-ey as the Nest, it too can save you up to 20% (according to Austin Energy).  Here’s how it works.  On really hot days in Austin everybody has their air condition on, full blast.  This puts a huge load on the system so Austin Energy, the utility company sends out a signal to the thermostat which cycles it off for a short time during peak hours.  This only happens during the months of July to September, and no more than 15 minutes every half hour.

Plus, it’s also programmable, so you can set specific temps for when you are home or away, with different settings for weekends, too.

Most thermostats are easily replaced with just a screw driver.  If you are a little bit handy, you can probably do the job yourself.  Just be aware, that most older thermostats have Mercury in them, and need to disposed of as Hazardous waste.  Don’t worry though, it’s safe to carefully handle old thermostats.  The mercury is contained in a little glass tube inside the thermostat, and is perfectly safe to work with as long as you don’t break the glass vial inside.