A Beginner's Guide to Automation: Getting Automation Right

Last time, we talked about the different levels of automation. To recap: Level 1 is a simple “if this happens then do that” process. Level 2 adds fixed conditions such as the day of the week or time of the day. Level 3 introduces the concept of modes which are essentially shortcuts to represent other actions or automations and allows you to constrain your automation to certain modes. Finally, Level 4 automations are complex, allowing an arbitrary number of conditions and if statements to be chained together. The automation level provided by Alexa and Google Assistant is Level 2 with basic day and time conditions. This week we’ll discuss why Level 2 is not enough for most multi-person households. We’ll also go through some strategies to help ensure the automations you create are as reliable as possible.

As the builder of the automation in your own home, you sometimes get blinded by the coolness factor of what you’ve accomplished and are unable to see where it falls short. One thing you need to be very aware of is that trust in automation, like that in people, is difficult to earn and extremely easy to lose. All it takes is one or two miscues for your family members (or even you) to no longer feel confident that the house systems will behave as expected. You might protest that it was just a small issue that you’ve since fixed or that it wasn’t your fault, there was a bug in the device handler. Most non-automater people won’t care about excuses. Lights, locks and thermostats are expected to just work. If they don’t, and your tinkering is related to the cause, the blame lands squarely in your lap and your plans for further automation in your home might be placed in jeopardy. The acronym widely used in the industry is WAF or Wife Acceptance Factor. Perhaps a more politically correct variation of this would be SOAF (Significant Other Acceptance Factor). Either way, the idea is that any modifications you make to your house need to conform to a certain standard of usability to prevent irritating the people you share your home with.

Level 2 automations are the embodiment of the 80 - 20 rule where 80% of cases can be handled with 20% of the effort. In this case, the 20% effort is your Level 2 automation. You can usually get it set up so that it works most of the time, but getting it to work 100% of the time is much harder. Your Level 2 automation can turn on your porch lights at sunset. But if it gets very dark before a storm, your lights will not go on. In this particular example, it might not matter too much but it’s not difficult to think of situations where a motion sensor activated light might turn off if you don’t move enough or your air conditioning doesn’t turn on because your house thinks you’re not home. It only takes one bathroom light turning off at an inopportune moment or bedroom lights going on in the middle of the night to ruin the entire concept of automation in a household! This means you often need to make use of more complex Level 4 automations to make sure that all the edge cases are covered. However, with complexity comes the opportunity for bugs, weird scenarios that you just didn't think of, and other issues that affect perceived reliability.

Here are some tips to help keep your complexity in check and you reliability high.

Add devices slowly over time. As tempting as it is to run out and replace “all the things” with smart versions, resist that urge and do it slowly. In previous guides, we talked about starting with thermostats and doorbells and then moving on to light switches. Even within the light switch stage, change only a few at a time (always keeping the integrity of your mesh in mind) so you get a feel for the characteristics and usage styles of the various types and brands. You can course-correct and switch brands without too much disruption if you find that one isn’t working well for you. It also allows you to get familiar with your electrical system and continuously improve your overall automation strategy. Most importantly, it limits the blast radius should something go very wrong. For example, if your family hates the fact that your new switches start dimming when you hold the paddle down (a common complaint from people that are used to pressing the switch paddle and having it stay in the pressed position), it’s much easier to change those out if you haven’t already updated 25 switches.

Always provide a familiar way to interact with your devices. People have been using light switches for many years; they want to continue to be able to control the lights with switches. Automation can make your life easier and reduce the need to touch the switches but it shouldn’t leave people without a way to physically control the home systems. If someone is cold, they should be able to manually adjust the thermostat without taking out their phone. This one of the reasons I prefer smart switches to smart bulbs. The switches provide a manual way to turn lights on and off while, in most cases, smart bulbs require apps and automation.

Additionally, manual adjustments should not “fight” with your automation. If someone tries to turn the lights off but your motion sensor keeps turning it on - they will get frustrated. Level 2 automation cannot handle this type of scenario but Level 4 usually can. For example, Webcore can detect the difference between physically turning off the light via the switch vs. doing so via an automation. Your automation can check if the switch was manually turned off before deciding to automatically turn back on.

You also need to remember that things break. Your hub can fail or your internet connection can go down (for those hubs that need it) at any time and while these occurrences might be rare, when they do happen, you do not want to lose control of your house. If the outage happens during an emergency, you must still be able to manually turn on your lights and unlock your doors. Having familiar physical controls makes this easier and intuitive for your family and guests.

Build automations slowly. Don’t automate everything right away just because you can. Identify low-risk areas to tackle first. For me, it was the mudroom. This was low risk because the type of rules needed there were extremely simple. If there is motion in the Mudroom and the Mode is not Shabbat (more on this in another post), turn the light on. After 5 minutes of no motion, turn them off. This rule was easy to test and the light switch in the mudroom meant there was very little downside if the automation did not work. But it did allow me to gain some insight to the reliability and timing of the motion sensor I chose and how it interacts with the system. Armed with that knowledge, I was able to automate other areas of the house with more confidence.

Complex automations should not do anything right after you build them. Most rules engines provide a way to record debugging information - use it to monitor the triggers and conditions of your rules before putting them to work in your house. If that is too complicated, for a week or two after setting it up, have the rule send you a push notification or text message instead of performing actions on your house. This allows you to test the automation and be notified immediately if your triggers and conditions are set up properly. This is especially important (and easy to do) for automation that changes your mode. Modes are Level 3 conditions that reflect the state of your house. Because the mode can potentially affect the fundamental behavior of all the rest of your automations, you need to be certain that the are being set correctly. If you are automatically changing the mode to Away, you want to be extremely sure that you are actually away. And that your family is away. And that your guests are away. Because this is so easy to get wrong, instead of changing the mode to Away, have the rule send you a message saying “Would have changed Mode to Away” so you can tell if it is behaving as expected. Once you are confident and have tweaked it to be reliable in all circumstances, you can have your automation actually modify the state of your house or mode.

Aesthetics are important. When designing your smart home, try to keep wires hidden in walls or moldings. Position motion detectors so they are unobtrusive and as invisible as possible while still “seeing” motion in the area they need to cover. Although you might think attaching an Axis Gear to your shades is the coolest thing in the world (and I do!), try to look at it from others’ perspective. Does that bulky white box look good on the wall? Can you route its power wire so it is not dangling to the nearest outlet or running across your window to a solar panel? In my case, the answer to these questions was, unfortunately, no. So I pull my shades up and down by hand like everyone else (for now). Of course, everyone’s tolerance for electronic and wire clutter is different so you need to find the right balance for you and your family.

Nothing is perfect and there will be mistakes made along the way. But if you follow these suggestions, you should be able to automate your home in a way that not only doesn’t annoy the rest of your household, but enhances their lives so that the occasional misstep is tolerated.

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