DIY Home Automation for Beginners
There are some truly amazing things that a DIY enthusiast with a love of technology, a few dollars (or pounds, or euros) to spend, and some simple tools can do with a house these days. Turning your regular bricks and mortar building into a 'smart home' capable of automating manual tasks, offering you fun, exciting and convenient new features, and even anticipating your needs to take care of your needs automagically, has never been cheaper or easier to accomplish.
The progression of technological development has made for the development of many more advanced home automation features in recent years, but perhaps even more dramatic has been the steep rise in the number of user-friendly products suitable for DIY installation. Whether you are a technology geek with abundant computer skills and a fascination for electronics, a home improvement and DIY enthusiast with general handyman skills, or just a regular person who can read a manual and use a screwdriver, you can easily find products and put together a project that will match your level of skills and experience.
Home automation systems have many benefits as well. Improved security, reduced energy bills, multi-room home entertainment (without having to buy Blu Ray players and full music systems for every room), and a major wow factor to impress visitors and potential future buyers are just some of the benefits - quite apart from the joy of having cool new gadgets to play with and to make your life easier and more enjoyable.
Feature Planning: The First Step in DIY Home Automation Design
There are so many different home automation products out there these days that if you are planning your first installation it can be easy to become overwhelmed by the choice and not really know where to start or how to choose the best components and brands to use for building your own system.
One of the best ways to get around this is to start off by focussing on features rather than products or brands. Your home is your castle, and a good home automation system is quite a personal thing. Everybody has their own habits and unique lifestyle, and home automation is really all about automating some of those habits and facilitating your own personal lifestyle. Pretty much every home is different in some way too, and all of these things mean that most home automation systems are unique installations designed around the people who will be using them.
I recommend that you start off by looking at all the different things that smart homes can do. Think about which of these features you most want and how you are likely to use them. Because DIY home automation systems are modular and can be built up over time it is often best to start with a few core features that you know you will definitely appreciate and be happy to live with over the long term, and then add extras in the future, rather than trying to do everything at once. At this stage I would recommend that you don't pay too much attention to specific products or brands - once you have a clear idea in your mind of exactly what you would like your system to actually do it will be a lot easier to find the right products.
You should also think about what additional systems you might like to integrate into your smart home control system. For example, alarm systems are commonly integrated so that you can monitor your home from anywhere in the world, and so that other systems can access information from the same sensors used by your alarm.
Components of a DIY Home Automation System
Of course the components that you will end up buying to built your smart home with will depend heavily on what features you want it to have. But to give you a point of reference and a starting point for further exploration, here are the five main categories which they fall into
- Primary Controller: Home automation system are basically electronic control systems. They allow you to use additional methods to control your household electrics and electronics, and to program in automatic routines and set 'scenes' (performing multiple functions to set up a room for a particular purpose, such as watching a movie, with one click). The primary controller of your system is like the 'brain' of the system. It is used to store the routines and scenes you program and to send out commands to the various appliances around your home. Often it will also connect your smart home system to the internet through your home WIFI, in order to allow you to access and control the system from outside the house, or using phone app, and perhaps to download information such as weather forecasts to inform automated decisions.
- Secondary Controllers: Home automation isn't just about letting a computer program control your home, it is also about adding additional options to control things yourself. This is where secondary controllers come in. A remote control handset can be used to control lights and curtains or blinds, a phone app can be used to switch on your heating, or a single switch on the wall could activate a scene or turn off everything in the room. These are all secondary controllers - they do not store or run the main software, but they can be used by yourself to manually control your home.
- Sensors: For a smart home to be able to perform actions on its own to take care of you, like automatically switching on lights when you walk into a room, closing the curtains when it gets dark, or heating the garage before you get up on sub-zero mornings, it needs to have information to act on. This could include things like light sensors, temperature sensors, presence detectors, contact sensors for alarm systems and more.
- Actuators: Actuators are the mechanical devices which perform some action when they receive a command. This could include things like wireless valves to switch radiators on and off, lighting dimmers, wireless lock mechanisms and plenty more besides.
- Electronics & Appliances: All sorts of electronic devices and electrical appliances can be integrated into a smart home design. This is especially true of home entertainment systems, which are often connected to create home cinema set ups, multi-room audio and so on.
DIY Friendly Home Automation Protocols and Brands
In order for all of the devices which make up your smart home to be able to communicate with each other they need to be able to speak the same language. The easiest way to do this is just to buy all of your devices from the same brand or manufacturer. There are plenty of DIY friendly brands which can offer you a wide range of features, such as LightwaveRF. The problem with taking this route is that buying everything from one place will limit you as to what mix of features you can get, and may also prevent you from getting the best deal on everything you buy.
To open up your options you need to understand about protocols. A protocol is just a standardized way for electronic devices to communicate with each other, so if two products support the same protocol then there is a good chance that you will be able to get them to play nicely with each other even if they are made by different manufacturers.
There are protocols like X10 which use your home's current wiring to communicate, and there are a wide range of wireless protocols such as Z-Wave, which is a popular and very DIY friendly choice.
You can learn more about the different protocols and the advantages and disadvantages of each in this article: Domotics 101.
If you are an electronics geek you may want to go even further down the electronics route by creating your own controller using a computer or microcontroller and open source software. In my experience Raspberry Pi is the best for home automation projects, although many others prefer Arduino. You may find these articles helpful:
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Free DIY Home Automation Design Tools
Just because you are designing your own system, does not mean that you have to sacrifice professionalism. There are several free software tools which you can use to help you plan and design your system. The most familiar of these to many people is the simple spreadsheet - making sure you list and price up all of the materials you will need (including the small things) can go a long way towards helping you to stay in budget.
Another useful tool is Sketchup, which you can use to create a basic floor plan of your home and lay on the various components of your system so that you can be clear about where everything will go. This is especially important when planning the location of sensors.
If you are using wired systems such as structured cabling or a powerline protocol like X10 then you may also find it useful to be able to create your own wiring diagrams. There are a few free and open source programs for this, such as Open Circuit Design.
Installation of Your DIY Smart Home
Unless you are actually building your own components from the ground up using microcontrollers or getting involved in serious electronics hacking, there are very few tools that you will require for installing a home automation system. You will definitely need a set of screwdrivers, preferably with good quality electrically insulated handles, and you may need something for cutting and stripping wires (side-cutting pliers, or electricians 'snips' are good for both) and a drill.