My top 5 home automation projects

December 21, 2021
Image showing 5 lightbulbs to represent the 5 home automation ideas explored in this post

I’ve been automating my house since 2012. I started out with basic home ‘automation’ which turned the lights on and off at set times. Since I now spend a lot more time at home (thanks COVID!) I’ve implemented different home automations to help make life at home a little more comfortable. In this article I want to share with you some home automation projects that I’ve implemented myself. I hope they spark your imagination and you can adapt these ideas to your own smart home setup.

1. Automatic lights

Walking into dark rooms can be dangerous, especially if you don’t live alone. Simple things like shoes or backpacks can be a tripping hazard. You may also find the dark scary if you live in an older house which creaks in the gentlest of breezes.

A lot of people start their home automation journey with lights. They get a smart light bulb or switch or bulb and can turn their lights on from an app or based on the time of day.  One of my favourite home automations takes this a step further. Lights are triggered by either a motion sensor, contact sensor or time of day. This isn’t new. Most mature smart homes feature motion based lights. I love them. Having my home react to me, makes me feel like I live in a sci-fi movie. 

Most rooms and corridors in my house have a motion sensor. When motion is detected some form of ambient lighting is turned on, so you can see where you are going. All of the lights are time of day and brightness dependent. They trigger between sunset and sunrise or if the light level in the house is too low. Great for those dark London days. The lights stay on while there is motion and turn off if there has been no motion for 2 minutes. Let me walk you through my setup. 

Living room

There are multiple smart lights in this space: two lamps, an LED strip behind the TV and a ceiling light. Two of these use generic smart wifi bulbs. The others use IKEA zigbee plug sockets. Walking into the living room turns on the table lamp and an LED strip behind the TV. 

An IKEA zigbee dimmer mounted on the wall provides control of all the lights. It can turn them on or off one by one. It can also turn them all on or off. More on this below.

Kitchen

I mounted an LED strip the kitchen cabinets. Walking into the kitchen turns on the under-cabinet lights. I often have my hands full when entering the kitchen and I no longer have to put things down and feel for the light switch in the dark.

Hallway

There are two lights in the hallway, a ceiling light and a LED strip mounted to the skirting board. When motion is detected, the LED strip turns on to provide ambient light. 

A contact sensor, mounted to the front door, tracks whether the door is open or closed. When coming home, opening the door turns on the ceiling light. It doesn’t trigger when leaving home.

Landing

There is one ceiling light with a wifi smart bulb. The motion sensor is positioned to ‘see’ down the stairs and across the landing. Walking out of any room, or up the stairs  triggers the motion sensor and in turn the ceiling light. I never walk upstairs into the darkness. During bedtime hours, the light is turned on at minimal brightness to avoid waking me up fully if I need the bathroom.

Bathroom

There is one ceiling light with a zigbee smart bulb from IKEA. I had previously tried wifi bulbs but they misbehaved after being exposed to moisture in the bathroom. The IKEA bulbs handle the bathroom environment perfectly.  Entering the bathroom causes the lights to turn on. There is an IKEA zigbee multi remote mounted to the wall outside the bathroom. It provides control for the bathroom, landing, hallway and office lights. Pressing the centre button turns on the bathroom light and overrides the motion sensor for 30 minutes. Useful for when you need to spend longer in the bathroom.

Office

There are several lights in the office. Only the floor lamp, fitted with an IKEA zigbee bulb, is turned on by motion. If you hadn’t guessed, I like the IKEA bulbs. They’re reasonably priced and provide great colour accuracy. The WiFi bulbs provide a good white colour but very dim coloured light. They’re also controlled via the TuYA (Smart Life) cloud. I find them laggy unreliable and plan replace all of them once they stop working.

Bedroom

There are two bedside table lamps in the bedroom, fitted with Smart WiFi bulbs. As I mentioned, their cool white to warm white colour is great. They give enough usable light for the whole room. Switching to any colour, they give out way less than the advertised 470 lumens. They’re ideal for pre-bedtime when dimmer lighting is beneficial. Motion turns on the bedside lamps. I use a vibration sensor to check if the bed is occupied. If it is, the motion sensor won’t trigger the light to avoid disrupting my sleep.

2. Button-triggered routines

At the end of the night, we want to turn off all the lights downstairs. Voice assistants can be a little annoying when they misunderstand, don’t listen or respond loudly. I set up an IKEA Tradfri zigbee dimmer to help. Long pressing on the dimmer turns off all of the lights and the TV. Pressing this button plunges me into darkness. To counter this, the hallway LED strip is also turned on. The LED strip turns on with motion anyway but it takes a couple of steps into the hallway before it detects motion. The one button routine is really convenient and everyone who visits loves it. 

Side note: the IKEA dimmer only has two buttons but can do so much. If you want to learn more about how I use it, just let me know

3. Motion sensors as alarm

As we’ve covered, there are motion sensors all over my house. I use a mix of IKEA and Philips motion sensors. I prefer the Philips ones, even though they’re more expensive. They have great battery life, include a light sensor and the timeout can be tuned. Useful if you need fine grained motion detection. 

When I leave the house, I can turn on the ‘alarm’ state via a remote in the house or the Home Assistant app. If we forget to turn this on, it happens automatically when all the phones have left the house. Each phone uses the home assistant app and reports its rough location every now and then. Once the phones are outside the ‘home zone’ the alarm turns on.

When the alarm is on, each motion sensor will send messages via Slack or Home assistant notifications to let me know if there is motion. If motion is detected, the speakers in the home play an alarm sound and the lights flash to attract attention. If you want to go a step further you can also run an ‘away’ light routine which automatically turns lights on and off to simulate someone being home. 

4. Habit & Medicine tracking

If you need to do something at a regular interval, it helps to have reminders. Whether it’s a reminder to work out, take your medicine/vitamins or meditate, your smart home can remind you to stay on track and track your progress.

Let’s take medicine as an example. Each day I get actionable notifications in the morning and evening. They ask if I have taken my medicine and I can reply ‘yes’ or ‘ask me later’.  These reminders are set to appear roughly 45 minutes after my morning alarm – which my smart home also knows about. 

If I take my medicine within the 45 minutes of waking up I can scan an NFC tag attached to the packaging with my phone. This lets my smart home know I’ve taken my medicine and the notification is cancelled.  The same happens in the evening. I’ve found this to be incredibly helpful because sometimes – especially when half-awake in the morning – I forget if I’ve taken my medicine. 

My smart home keeps a history of my medicine taking over time and I can see how often I miss a dose. The same logic can be used for habit tracking. For example, if you want to know how many days a week you go to the gym, leave an NFC tag in your gym bag. Scan it when you get to the gym and your smart home logs it. You could go a step further and use the same NFC tag to queue up your favourite workout playlist on your phone too. If you miss a session, you can nudge yourself with notifications. 

5. Bin reminder

In the UK, rubbish and recycling is collected on the same day each week. Bank holidays usually move our collection day back by a day. My smart home keeps track of public holidays and provides a reminder the day before collection. The bins are generally collected before I am awake and need to be out on the edge of the property before morning. 

The day before bin collection, my smart home reminds me to put out the bins as part of the morning alarm routine. It also sends an actionable notification in the evening where I can reply ‘yes, I’ve done it’ or ‘remind me later’. If the bins aren’t out by midnight, the system will send another notification. I haven’t implemented this yet, but I’d like to turn off the notifications if we aren’t within 2km of the house for more than 24 hours. Ideal if we’re on holiday.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been working from home. Every day feels the same and I forget which day of the week it is. I find these reminders helpful because I avoid the situation where I hear the bin collection in the morning and curse because I’ve forgotten to put the bins out the night before.

Products

Hearing your feedback on this post, folks wanted to know what products I am using. Here’s the full list. Beware, not all of the products will work together out of the box. If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, I recommend using Home Assistant. It is open source, has a great community and easily extendable. I’ve built an addon or two for Home Assistant in the past. To use Home Assistant with the Zigbee devices below, you’ll need a Zigbee USB stick (details below). You’ll also need to install some other bits of software, like MQTT, NodeRed and Zigbee2MQTT. I’m happy to create a tutorial if you’re interested. Just email me.

ItemBest PriceKey FeaturesRecommendation
Hub
Raspberry Pi 2B running Home Assistant N/A very old model.Low power consumptionThere’s probably a newer model of the Pi to buy. My home automation runs great on this older model, so you should have no problem if you use a newer model with more horsepower.
Conbee II Zigbee USB stick£31.22Easy to configure.Solid performance.This lets your Home Assistant on your raspberry pi speak ‘zigbee’. Necessary if you want to use zigbee devices from the likes of IKEA, Philips etc.
Light bulbs
IKEA Tradfri LED bulb E27 806 lumen, wireless dimmable colour and white spectrum/globe opal white£15ZigbeeTunable white and colourDimmable806 LumenGreat value bulb. Unlike other bulbs, maintains brightness when set to colour.
Ikea often does kits with a bulb and a dimmer switch. These are usually the price of 1 bulb. I recommend you buy this if you can because the dimmer is technically free
IKEA TradfriLED bulb E27 1000 lumen, wireless dimmable white spectrum/globe opal white£15ZigbeeTunable whiteDimmable1000 LumenAgain, a great value bulb. Colour accuracy is good.Unlike wifi bulbs, works well in my bathroom.
Ikea often does kits with a bulb and a dimmer switch. These are usually the price of 1 bulb. I recommend you buy this if you can because the dimmer is technically free
LVWIT 470 Lumen E14 WiFi Smart Bulbs£16.90 for two bulbsWIFIWorks with Tuya and Smart life appsTunable white and colourDimmableGood brightness when using the white colourPoor brightness when using any other colour.
If colour and brightness are both important to you, I recommend you buy an IKEA tradfri bulb.
600 Lumen RGBCW Wifi Smart Bulb£9.99WIFIWorks with Tuya and Smart Life appsTunable white and colourDimmableGood brightness when using the white colour.Average brightness when using any other colour.
If colour and brightness are both important to you, I recommend you buy an IKEA tradfri bulb.
WiFi RGBW LED Strip Controller £7.39WiFiWorks with Home Assistant but throws errors on the UI.Controls RGB or RGBW strips (you need to buy the right model).I wouldn’t recommend this unit unless you’re just starting out. It requires yet another China-based app to function.
My new recommendation is an ESP32 based WLED controller. See below. 
ESP32 ‘nodemcu’ board running WLED£8.49WiFi.Can drive a variety of LED strip types including:RGB, RGBW and individually addressable.If you’re feeling hands on, you can flash these boards with WLED fairly easily. They’re solid performers and when paired with an individually addressable strip you can create some awesome effects.
I ordered a bunch from Ali Express, they took a couple weeks to arrive but each unit came in at less than £3.
Motion sensors
Philips Hue Motion Sensor£24.99ZigbeeSettings can be fine-tuned (sensitivity and motion detection time-out)Includes a brightness sensor
Great battery life and overall solid performer. I’m only buying these motion sensors now.
IKEA Tradfri motion sensor£12ZigbeeGreat battery life but limited control over settings. The motion sensor takes about 90 seconds to reset before it can ‘see’ motion again. This is ideal for most use cases, but not all of them.I would recommend if you need a budget friendly option, or your use-cases work if the sensor doesn’t ‘see’ anything for 90 seconds. Great sensor to start with. That’s what I did.
Buttons, Remotes & Plugs
IKEA Tradfri Remote Control£10Zigbee5 programmable buttonsUpto 3 ‘action’s per button (click, long press start, long press end)Magnetic standWith Home Assistant and Node Red, you can programme this remote to do anything you want. I have a few of these in the house and for the price, they’re awesome. Highly recommended.
IKEA Tradfri Dimmer£7Zigbee2 programmable buttonsUpto 3 ‘actions’ per button (click, long press start, long press end)IKEA doesn’t seem to sell the dimmer on its own anymore. They were about £7. Again, highly recommended.
IKEA Tradfri Wireless Control Outlet£10ZigbeeConnect to existing ‘dumb’ lamps or LED strips to be able to turn them on and off with home assistant.
There are better models which do energy reporting etc, but I’ve found these to be cheap and reliable.

What’s your favourite home automation?

If you have any ideas which aren’t in the list above, I’d love to hear about them. Please get in touch! Also, if you’re interested in how I set up any of my automations, I’d be happy to give more details.

By Chirag

I'm a Product Manager here on products like this. On this site, I share what I know about product management, technology (especially home automation), productivity and travel. I don’t claim to be an expert. Take what I say with a pinch of salt. I hope I can learn from you too. If you find a better way to think about or do something, please let me know!

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5 Comments

  1. Hrshl

    Great article. Love some of this at my place

    Reply
  2. Andreas

    I’ve started on a similar path but got stuck on the way. I’ve got Node-Red and mosquitto running on a Raspi Zero 2W (previously: a NAS), all within Docker containers.

    Years ago, I bought three ESP8266-based smart plugs and installed Tasmota on them. They control 3 lights. A single press switches the light on/off. This works locally, without network. Long press: all off. Double press: all on. There are rules for switching light on by the sun (calculated rather than measured) and switches them off by time (reminds me to go to bed).

    Here is how I got stuck: ESP8266 doesn’t support any kind of modern encryption. No WPA2, no TLS for firmware updates, no TLS for MQTT. I didn’t want to invest further into the platform and wanted to wait for ESP32 before I buy all kinds of sensors and devices. Those ESP32 devices are just slowly appearing, so I will get back to the plan when I can buy them.

    It would be interesting to see your programming in Node-Red. For me, even the simple setup fills a whole page of boxes and lines – very confusing. Most of it converts values, e.g. from strings (ON, OFF) to numbers (0, 1) and back. I’m thinking about switching to a real programming language like Kotlin because I feel the graphical UI doesn’t scale to larger installations. What do you think?

    Reply
    • Chirag

      Hi Andreas,

      I prefer ZigBee based devices for most things. The only ESP devices I use now are ESP32 boards running WLED.

      As for node red, yes it can get messy fast. You can keep things today by using function nodes or subflows to keep things tidy. Subflows can help a lot abstracting away common logic into a new node. If there’s a particular node red flow you’d like to see, let me know and I will share it.

      Chirag

      Reply
  3. Harshil Joshi

    I love this, looking forward to trying some of it out at my place.

    Reply
    • Chirag

      Awesome! Let me know how you get on 🙂

      Reply

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