This note provides additional information to the article published in the Autumn 2021 edition of the Pedal. It lists examples of all the types of equipment I refer to in my article. Each example is one I use at home. I also describe some alternatives and, where appropriate a little bit about the technology they use and some 'gotcha's.
This is the second article in the series, you can see the notes for the first article here.
Portsmouth CTC will earn a small commission (at no cost to you) if you purchase anything through one of the Amazon links even if you decide to buy something different.
The link on the left is to the main Echo device but it's just one of a family of devices all of which can be used for home automation. You can see the whole family here.
We use an Echo in the living room - it gives good sound quality and includes the technology to control Zigbee devices.
We use Echo Dots in the kitchen and the bedroom - where sound quality is less important. That being said, the quality is fine for those areas.
Once you've installed the skill needed to control a device, you can start operating it with your voice. For example "Alexa, turn Andy's blanket on".
Routines provide far more flexibility. For example, you can:
None of the above needs any IT expertise.
There's more. Alexa skills don't always provide full control over devices. Device manufacturers provide their own mechanisms to send commands to their equipment using many of the features described above for Echo devices, and routines can execute those scenes giving even more flexibility.
You can probably tell, I'm a big fan of Echo devices, but there are alternatives:
|The link on the left isn't to the exact device we use but it's clearly the same one sold through a different outlet (and you'll see identical items on Amazon sold by different companies).
In fact there's a ton of different devices implementing the same function. You're spoilt for choice. Apart from simple plugs like the one on the left, you can also find:
Just one of many
Again, there are loads of competing products. This one (and, I guess most others) is deeper than a normal switch. We installed a spacer to allow it to fit in the existing cavity.
We use it to control a ceiling fan and it works well without a capacitor (see below).
To install the switch you need to remove the existing switch and wire in the new one. That's a simple process, but you will need to take care to ensure there is no power to the switch before you start. I have a multi-meter to double-check.
No neutral wire required, but...
This switch works with most UK light fittings that have just one wire in and one wire out. It also works (and works better) if the wall cavity also has a neutral wire which will then directly power the switch.
Without a neutral wire, the switch gets its power by:
For analogue devices like old-fashioned bulbs, fans and halogen devices powered through a transformer, that works well.
The method can cause problems for digital devices such as LED lights, including flickering and randomly switching on. To address that problem, Yagusmart provide a capacitor to fit across the neutral and live wires. That means getting access to the light fitting. It's worth trying the switch without a capacitor first, though.
As I write this, there are no 'no neutral wire' remote control dimmer switches. If you already have a dimmer switch installed, however, it's likely you also have a neutral wire in the light fitting. If so, there are a variety of remote control dimmer switches available.
If you're not keen to rewire your light switch, there are alternatives:
|There are a number of buttons on the market but the Flic2 ones are the clear leader (for now) because they're:
The buttons need a hub connected to your broadband network by cable or WiFi. Each hub can work with 32 buttons.
For the time being, the Flic2 buttons and hub are available only direct from the Flic web site which ships them from Stockholm. Keep orders below £135 (at time of writing) to avoid having to pay import duty.
We use them to execute Echo routines:
The hub can also be used as blaster (see below).
|Switchbot has cornered this - somewhat niche - market.
It's a battery-powered robot with a little arm that swings out to press a button. An attachment also allows it to turn rocker switches (such as light switches) on and off.
It needs a hub that connects the button pusher to your Wi-Fi network.
The same hub can also operate other Switchbot devices such as curtains (see below). It can also be used as blaster (see below).
It's an alternative way to operate light switches if you don't fancy rewiring. We use one to press a button.
We use one to switch off the fire in our living room. It pushes the relevant button on the fire’s remote control for 10 seconds. OK, I kept forgetting to do that myself so the fire was on all night. I couldn't replace the remote control with a blaster because it uses ultrasonic signals, not infra-red.
See it in action...
|The link on the left goes to the device we use but it's been superseded by this one.
The latest version also provides the ability to control devices that use wireless signals (as opposed to WiFi). These aren't as common in the UK as they are in the US.
Since we bought this we also bought a Switchbot hub and a Flic hub each of which can do the same job.
Once installed, you use a phone to load profiles of remote controls to operate your devices. For example, we had to experiment with the profiles provided for Panasonic TVs before we found one that worked for us. Alternatively you can create a 'blank' remote control and record buttons from an existing remote. You can also mix and match if a supplied profile doesn't implement all the buttons you need.
You can then use the phone as a remote control for all your devices or you can operate them using voice commands via a combination of routines and Broadlink scenes (important because routines do not have the ability to use all possible buttons.
When using infra-red, the device works best if it has line of sight to the infra-red receivers on the devices you are controlling. You can try bouncing signals off walls and ceilings but might not work well.
You do not, however, need line of sight to control wireless devices.
Note that it's not just TVs and related equipment that use infra-red. To start with we used this IR-controlled light switch which we controlled with a blaster and a spare button on our One-for-all remote controls.
|This is actually a tiny computer that receives infra-red signals from a remote control (we use a One-for-all remote that works with all our IR appliances) and IR blasters.
It works with most types of computer including Windows, IOS, Linux and devices including: PCs, laptops, Playstation, Xbox and Raspberry Pi.
We use one to operate a fanless PC so we can use it as a media centre for playing movies, TV programmes, videos, photos, etc. We use the free Kodi home theatre software.
Because the Flirc is programmable it can emulate keyboards and media buttons as well as running sequences from a single remote button. It can also wake up the computer and send it to sleep.
|We started with the kit on the left and added more thermostats over time.
Fitting is really easy. The hub has a standard backplate so we simply removed our existing thermostat and replaced it with the hub. If you already have Thermostatic Radiator Valves (TRVs - they've been compulsory for some time in new builds), it's easy to unscrew one and screw in the replacement. It configures itself automatically.
You just need to use a phone or tablet to connect the hub to your WiFi network and turn your old thermostat up to maximum (so it doesn't interfere) - that's it.
No plumbing or electrical expertise needed.
You can then use a phone or tablet to program the TRVs individually so they come on at the specified days and times and at given temperatures. That's a lot more flexible that a system that uses a single thermostat in one location.
The system comes with an Echo skill so you can ask Alexa to, for example, turn the hot water on for an extra two hours or turn a radiator off if you're not using a room.
Some people have had issues connecting the devices. You should be OK as long as the hub can connect to WiFi as the TRVs communicate between themselves so the most distant one can use other TRVs to relay commands.
If the hub loses its Wifi connection it continues to work and run your programmes. There's also a mechanism to reprogram devices using a directly connected phone or tablet (instead of connecting via the Internet) - but after a few years we've never had to use that.
Curtains and blinds
|We use the device on the left to open and close our curtains. It's not just convenient:
We use curtains with grommets that fit onto rods. Amazon points out that's not a supported application. SwitchBot provides a kit to overcome issues with that type of equipment - but it's ugly. I treated this as a DIY project and was able to implement a reliable solution using low cost alternatives. That's the topic of my next home automation article.
|This is Paul Hibbert. He makes a YouTube broadcast most week-ends on home automation. Even if you're not interested in what he's discussing, it's always good for a laugh.
When he's talking about something I know about, I mostly agree with his conclusions so I guess that's some kind of recommendation.