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Summary:

If you have a smart home and want to make it a bit more automated, modes might be your new best friend. Here’s how to take advantage of them.

Today is the third or maybe even fourth snow day for my daughter. While it’s a productivity hit, the incessant and unexpected changes to her schedule have also converted me to a new way of thinking about how I manage my smart home. I’m now a huge believer in different modes. Modes like nighttime, daytime, away, vacation and working are all modes that I’m thinking of using for my own lifestyle.

So instead of telling my thermostat to drop the temperature (in winter) at 10 PM as I’ve programmed it to, by hooking it up to a smart hub that supports modes, I can now set it up to start falling when I actively, or one of my devices, triggers the nighttime mode. This means when my husband and I stay up until 11 watching a movie (we are a wild bunch), we don’t spend the last chunk of it shivering on the couch.

Instead of thinking about time as the primary indicator of when something should happen, modes can help by creating a governing set of conditions that need to be met in the home in order for something to take place. The trick with using modes is twofold; you need to think about the right modes for your situation and you need to pick good triggers.

Making the most of your modes

photo (2)Let’s start with the right modes. I’ll confess that I’ve been avoiding modes for quite some time because they don’t fit the way I use my home. Commonly hubs have three modes: Away, Nighttime and Home. Because I work from home I never bothered to mess with modes because it seemed extra complicated given that we actually have a pretty set wake-up and going to bed habit thanks to a seven-year-old that wakes us up at 7 without fail. And because I work from home, Away actually doesn’t happen all that often or for long enough amounts of time that I felt it was worth messing with programming the mode as opposed to just adjusting the thermostat manually when I knew we were going to be out for more than two hours.

But after the last two weeks when we had two snow days, a delayed start and my husband was sick and sleeping downstairs I got sick of walking over to the thermostat to change things. Yes, I could have done it from my smart phone, but I don’t carry one everywhere. And so after I hung out at the SmartThings office last week in Washington D.C. and we got into a discussion about the platform and modes, I came back with the realization that I need to add another layer of complexity to my time and trigger based recipes.

Most hubs have the ability to set more modes and so that was the first step. Before setting it up, think about your lifestyle — because I have a two-story house and work from home, I keep the thermostat downstairs set to 60 in the winter and 82 in the summer because I’m upstairs in my office with the exception of the occasional snack run. Thus I felt I needed a Working mode to differentiate from Away or Home. I added a vacation mode as well because I foresee a future where my recipes get more sophisticated about running more intelligent programs to turn lights on and off in my absence and because I set the thermostat differently when I am gone for a weekend than when I am gone for an afternoon.

I wonder if in a few years I’ll want a separate mode for when my daughter is home alone that does things like sets the alarm, calls me if the liquor cabinet is opened or the front door opens, but I won’t program that now.

Let there be light, or dark, or whatever

A motion detector on my stairs.

A motion detector on my stairs.

Once you’ve considered the right modes for your family, then it’s time for the hard part. Figuring out how to trigger a mode change. Away is easy right now. When my phone leaves the vicinity and my husband’s car (it has a presence tag) leaves the house goes into Away mode. Eventually we might have to add a presence tag or a phone for our daughter, but for the moment it works. Vacation I set manually because it’s relatively rare. I’m still considering what can trigger Awake, but maybe a motion detector at the top of the stairs that’s triggered within the 6-8AM time frame works. The stairs might end up as my nighttime trigger as well. I may have to trigger working via a web integration because I can’t come up with a physical trigger that only happens when I start my workday.

In thinking about all of this, I’ve learned two things: the first is how much forethought has to go into setting up a smart home and how few people will likely want to do it, and the second is how difficult it is to build pre-set options that will fit the needs of families. A smart home is a highly customized proposition and since homeowners are different and families grow and change over time companies will have to figure out how to make something as complicated as modes almost seamless. Algorithms will help, but they will also need to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances — those that happen over weeks, seasons and years.

Image courtesy of Pond5/Steveheap

  1. Glad to hear I am not the only one dealing with this. My family is very active with small children, baby sitters, family and guests over all the time. I can’t simply attach a presence tag to everyone or set modes on a clock. I am realizing motion detectors all over the house is necessary to get the modes to automatically set at the right times and create an effective security system, though its no where near perfect. I would love iBacons in each room that detect a wearables such as a Pebble as when I am home I don’t usually have my phone on me, as 99% of the time have my Pebble on. Getting the rest of my family to wear something similar is another story, but doable.
    Ideally I would like SmartThings to be more like Nest and learn the pulse of my home over time and simply alert me if something seem unusual. That is why nest is so successful, because it requires so little interaction and setup to do its job wonderfully. Once an effective and helpful SmartHome setup becomes simply plug and play, it will go mainstream, but we have a long way to go. Looking forward to the process!

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  2. What motion detector are using on the stairs there? Thanks.

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  3. We dont need modes but analytics based decisioning within the regulating hub. Here is how I see it…

    Optimal temprature needed to stay comfortable is 27 degrees celcius. The algorithm needs to be fed with activity monitors (motion sensors and video feeds of key locations in the house.. covering all locations in the house if possible) and then analytics built into algorithms will try to recognize the activity type that you or anyone in the house could be doing in any particular area of the house

    For example, if the algorithm detects “face(s)”/”head(s)” on “bed” in the “night” (video feed from outside the house that shows dark) with “tv” (amazon flow can detect devices for example) found ON where “faces” show “slight eye movements” and “heads” occasional “side ways movement” .. the whole pattern above can be recognized as “house mates watching TV in the night” but we don’t need to set a mode around it… all we need is that the hub recognizes the presence of people around that area and that they are active..if human presence is active within a area for longer than 2 minutes (A)(can be tuned). make the temperature closer to 27 degrees in that particular region of the house … if there is no activity in a region for more than 10 minutes (B)(can be tuned), temperature does not need to be maintained in that region (thus saving electricity/gas/cost)… since there can be occasional visits to an area (run for snacks) those occasional visits need to be within B to feel comfortable.

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    1. I agree with you, but we’re still about a year or maybe more off from that, so I decided to break down and go for modes :)

      Also I don’t actually want motion sensors to note when I am running downstairs for a snack and use that to turn on the air for example. Lights? sure. But the thermostat should stay off, which makes me think that even with analytics modes might be a good tool for customizing the home for each individual family.

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  4. But in reality, how much does it save? Every time I try this it seems that my usage is about the same. Think about it, you have to reheat many tons worth of wood/walls/etc in your furniture, cabinets, dressers, etc. On top of it, the constant daily expansion / contraction of your walls and furniture winds up causing more cracks, creaky floors, etc. If you are going on vacation for a week or more it does save money, but anything less than a day, is a waste. All you do is have a good feeling like you are somehow “green” but in reality it does nothing. If you want to be “green”, replace your insulation with foam to seal everything if possible (think about a thermal envelope design where attic ceiling is insulated so you have a heat/cold regulating buffer of air in the attic) and / or get a nice 2 stage heat pump that is designed to be the most efficient at keeping the house at a specific temp.

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    1. My thermostat is “smart” and so doesn’t drop or raise the temperature past a set recovery rate, which during the summer means my temps downstairs won’t rise above 79 even though I set it for 82 (we keep it at 77 when we’re there). So we don’t save much money, but I also am looking at additional ways to tweak my energy savings. For that, though I think i need an API from my utility that tells me when I’m about to go over to the next pricing bracket.

      As for “green” I live in a “green” home built in 2011, so this is mostly about saving what I can on AC costs and using only what I need.

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  5. Perhaps Neurio can help make things easier. It could figure out what mode the home needs to be in, like if you’re still watching TV even though it’s past 10pm.

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    1. I can’t wait for that to hit the market, although BLE beacons with a learning algorithm might be a better option.

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  6. I’m having this same problem, and I’m only 2 weeks into my SmartThings life. To be fair, this likely happens with any home automation system.

    The question I keep asking myself is how much time do I want to spend messing with the different ways things can happen? And is that time I spend worth it (I would say yes from a nerd/fun factor). But right now, it’s seeming like just a hobby with a few nice features until things get easier to use and program.

    What it comes down to is this is a very hard problem… programming the home react to you effortlessly in almost every situation.

    I think I’ll be starting small and barely growing as things get hashed out. Someone is going to crack this nut at some point.

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    1. It’s true. I wrestle with this same question and sadly, my answer is, “Because it’s my job.” Otherwise, I recommend you pick connected devices that you plan to use because they offer functionality on their own.

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  7. I’m having this same problem, and I’m only 2 weeks into my SmartThings life. To be fair, this likely happens with any home automation system.

    The question I keep asking myself is how much time do I want to spend messing with the different ways things can happen? And is that time I spend worth it (I would say yes from a nerd/fun factor). But right now, it’s seeming like just a hobby with a few nice features until things get easier to use and program.

    What it comes down to is this is a very hard problem… programming the home react to you effortlessly in almost every situation.

    I think I’ll be starting small and barely growing as things get hashed out. Someone is going to crack this nut at some point.

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  8. In past decades, smart homes were afforded by homeowners with 3 or more forced air units with significant energy savings and a full return on investment. Today, smart home technology is available to anyone with a smartphone and whose benefit will vary from home to home. It is helpful to approach “Smart home” as a design element serving a homeowners interests and individual needs. To that individual, smart home has unmeasurable value.

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