Because I work in tech and because I needed a new project that didn't involve adding to the physical footprint of my tiny house, I naturally started looking into smart devices. The truth is that I have been itching to do this for a while but was trying to keep things simple as living tiny tends to dictate. However, after upgrading my solar system to a Victron ecosystem last year and watching all types of data flow out and into my (pretty good) Victron app, I have relented.
Now, if you also have dipped your toe into smart home automation, you will understand that there is pretty much no middle ground. Either you love it and get addicted, or you decide that wall switches are less hassle and leave smart devices till it's all "Apple-fied" and you don't need to think about the logic. I fell into the former group.
Before you judge me and challenge whether I really need to be able to turn my kitchen lights off by voice command when the switch is never more than 2m away from me, I will justify this by explaining that it is the automation that makes my tiny house smart and efficient and everything else supports the learning along the way. I must warn you that if you don't live and breathe IoT programming, then the learning curve is steep. Steep but not insurmountable.
I started this project a year ago, but only really got my teeth into it when I quit my job recently and found it was taking longer than expected to find a new job. Rather than start with the technical stuff, I thought I'd start with the cool things my system now facilitates:
The Cool Stuff
Outside lights come on when I come home after sunset. This is cool because there are no motion detectors involved, my system just detects when I connect to my wifi (which is about 50m away from home). Plus I don't have to adjust the time according to the time of year as there is a plugin that looks up the sunset times for my location. Way cool!
Everything turns off when I put my phone on charge at night. So this is my current favourite because it's so smart! The conditions are that it only triggers when I put my phone on charge after 9pm. I don't tend to ever put my phone on charge after 5pm and I go to bed between 9.30pm and 10.30pm so after a few weeks of this being active I haven't had it fail yet. Oh, and it has a 10 second delay so that I'm all comfy and warm before everything goes dark.
Air conditioner heat switches on in winter 1 hour before my alarm goes off if it is cold. This was one of my earliest automations and still a favourite. I could link this to my alarm so that it triggers exactly 1 hour before any alarm, but I always get up at the same time so I just use a time. So every day at 5.30am, the system checks if I am home, and if so it checks the inside temperature. If it is below 12 degrees it turns the AC on to medium high, if it is below 15 degrees it turns the AC on to medium, and if it is warmer than 15 degrees it does not turn the AC on. Always warm when I get up in winter now!
I am alerted when my solar batteries are almost full when charging my generator. This is pretty simple but very handy. During winter my solar generation is not so great where I live so I rely on a generator. It's not the most ideal situation as the tank is small and I have to refill it frequently and I have to go outside to turn it on and off. Without this automation, the batteries could be full but the generator continues, using fuel and not charging anything. So, only if the generator is running my app alerts me that my batteries are 95% full so I know to go out and turn the generator off soon.
(Almost) everything turns off whenever I leave home. Except the washing machine! I forgot that I often run the washing machine when I am not home so that when I get home I can hang it out to dry immediately, so removed the washing machine from that list. Everything else gets turned off so no chance I have left a light or (worse) the AC on.
I tell Siri I want to watch TV and the lighting adjusts and TV turns on. So my TV is my monitor which is connected to both my Apple TV and my computer. This automation turns the monitor and Apple TV on and sets the desk lights over the monitor to be low blue. To be honest, its the only situation where I used coloured lights! But it is good to change from bright office lights to low tv lights.
So if that sounds cool, you should read on.
My Smart Journey
I live in Australia so the devices I use are what I can purchase here. I have read about lots of other devices that I can't get here so whilst there may be better options overseas, this is what I have settled on here.
I should add that I work within an Apple ecosystem and use an iPhone 12 mini, an iPad, a Macbook Pro, an Apple TV and a Homepod mini. If you use an android system mostly, you might find other devices are better. I find that if I am working with smart devices that Apple approves of then Apple's Homekit works pretty well to manage them all in one place. I think Homekit is a bit of a deviation from Apple's usual suite of products in that it's not that easy for your typical user to understand what it does and how to do it. And it's quite limited if you are a smart-device addict. So for me, it was a place to start but it didn't satisfy me for long.I moved onto using Homebridge and then Home Assistant, but I'll cover this in a subsequent post.
The number of devices Apple likes to work with is limited, and if you want to do anything beyond what Apple thinks you want to do, the answer is a firm "no". For many people, using Apple and it's approved devices will be enough so by all means start there. I started by tinkering with a few different smart devices and assumed they could all connect and do smart things. They can, but not out of the box.
The thing to remember is that if smart devices have an iOS app, then you will be able to control them from an app for that device on your iPhone. However, if you want them to work together and build smart automations then you need devices that will work on Apple Homekit. Subtle but important difference. 1 app to rule them all vs one app for each type of device. Or you can integrate them with a bridge like Homebridge or Home Assistant. But that's next level integration and I'll cover that in a later post.
First things first - check your WiFi router can accommodate many device connections! You'll want to ensure your router (often your modem) can have more than 10 devices connected at once. If you need to upgrade, find something that can take 50-100. They add up quicker than you'd think. Living tiny and off-grid, I use MiFi (mobile broadband) for internet and I was using a small portable device - the TP Link M7350. This could only accommodate 10 devices so I upgraded to the TP Link MR600 which can accommodate up to 64 devices.
My Smart Devices
Here are the smart devices I started with.
Smart controller for your Air Conditioner: Sensibo
I love this one - it was by far the easiest smart device to install of them all. I loved it so much I made this video and it was what got me hooked on the smartification of my home. I was going to purchase an additional remote control which would have cost about the same as this device, so decided to give it a go. Essentially you can can control your air conditioner (if it has an infrared remote control) from your phone. That also means you can turn it on before you get home.
Lighting - Arlec & DETA
You have a choice with lighting - you can either install a smart wall switch so that you can turn it on and off using an app, or you can replace the bulbs with smart bulbs. The latter requires you to leave the wall switch on so that the app can control the power through the bulb. Unless you want to control the dimming and/or colours, using a smart wall switch is simpler. By only switching out the bulbs you can get into the situation where the wall switch has been turned off and no app can make your lights turn on and off. But... colours 🤩
I use Arlec and DETA because a) they are available from Bunnings and b) they seem to work well once paired. Also, my friend is an electrician and informed me that he found DETA to be pretty good in terms of quality. The switches require an electrician to install - not because it's difficult but mostly because of the risk of doing it wrong can create a fire hazard.
Arlec and DETA use the same platform for their APIs so you can download one of a couple of different apps and they will all work. Grid Connect is one, Tuya Smart is another. Tuya is the platform both apps use and it is a Chinese built platform. If you are into APIs then you should take a look at their API platform and documentation - its pretty impressive. And a little difficult to navigate but all the functionality is there. If you want to hook your devices up to a single platform to connect it all then using the Tuya Smart app will make life easier later. The app means you can control the devices using your phone. The ultimate goal is to have one app to control them all, but this is a starting step. You also need the app to register the device.
I should note that I did find it excruciating to pair these devices. I think I had to try maybe 5-10 times for each device, so planning to install many devices in one sitting could take a while and be quite frustrating. I just had to keep trying and eventually they pair. I don't know if other people have had this experience. Mostly, once they pair they are good. But this is also why I'd say start with the Tuya Smart app because you don't want to change apps too often and go through the pairing process again. The functionality is basically identical.
The way I have used these devices is as follows:
Desk lights (colours, dimming)
Lounge light (dimming)
Kitchen lights (switch)
Front lights (switch)
Range hood (switch)
Washing Machine (switch)
Power board in shed to control rechargeable tool batteries (auto-switch off) and light
Climate Sensors: Netatmo
This is one of very few weather stations that work with Apple's Homekit out of the box. Given it's sleek brushed aluminium case, its very apple-like in its appearance also. The whole system consists of a master module that sits inside connected to a power supply, and a slave battery-powered module that sits outside. You can purchase additional sensors such as a rain gauge (which I also purchased) and a wind anemometer. Here is the information it reports on:
Inside CO2 levels
Rainfall last hour (with rain gauge)
Rainfall today (with rain gauge)
Current rainfall rate (with rain gauge)
This smart device is a sensor only - it doesn't do anything, but you can create automations based on its information.
Watering System: B-Hyve
For some reason, the home irrigation space is not exactly flush with great options. I can't rave about this one, but for it's price point it's adequate. Again, you can buy it from Bunnings so if it fails they will replace/refund it. I have replaced mine once because it started hammering, but I think that might have been due to a change in water pressure. My main issue with it is it's fairly retro app that isn't very intuitive. Its just... clunky.
The hardware is not bad and consists of a hub that plugs into a power point near where your tap is (mine is conveniently on the other side of the wall) and a battery-powered valve station that sits between your tap and your hose. Sometimes the station loses the connection with the hub but normally its just a case of switching the hub off and on again. Happens maybe once every 2 months. You can add more stations to manage more than 1 zone if you want but I've just got 1 for now. Each station is around $100 and I'm not convinced they are worth more than 1 just yet.
If you persevere with the app interface, you can set up programs for x number of minutes of watering at the same time each day or second day. You can use a smart feature that relies on forecast precipitation that I found to be not terribly accurate. In summer I use it for short watering periods in the morning and evening. It's frost warnings are quite accurate and you can allow it to skip days where either the system decides there will be enough rain to warrant skipping a day or there is frost forecast (mostly in winter when I don't need to water).
I've just worked out how to integrate its API into my single platform (Home Assistant) so am looking forward to using this more cleverly next summer with my own precipitation readings and integrated granular forecasts.
Smart Devices as a Basic Start
So you could install all of these devices and get the benefit of having all their readings at your fingertips and controlling them from your phone. The weather station will integrate directly with Apple Homekit but thats about it. Some of the apps will do some smart stuff (such as the Sensibo app will allow you to geofence your home and switch on or off as you enter the geographical location) but the real power of automation comes into play when you integrate them into one platform.
The next step I made was using Homebridge. But that's a whole other post :)