What this hellish winter has taught me about programming the smart home

Snow falling behind thermometer

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

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