Upgrade your “dumb” home to a smarter one

What do you find annoying in your home? What would make you more comfortable? If you take these pieces of advice, you’ll end up with a 21st century home.

What do you find annoying in your home? What would make you more comfortable?

Shading remains a daily routine

I think the number one item on the list of what to make automatic in a home is shading/motorising blinds. The problem is that turning old school, manual blinds into motorised ones requires a pretty significant modification. I have yet to see a solution that requires no 220V and that would work with a later addition to move your blinds. So you should suck it up and accept that this problem can’t be solved: you’re going to be stuck with manually controlling the blinds.

Hiding switches

The number 2 item on the list is lighting. The situation here is much better than with the blinds. Now even IKEA offers a solution that, after a few months’ use, I’d be happy to recommend. Retrofitting your home with automated lighting is easy because all you need to do is replacing the light bulbs in your lamps with smart bulbs.

Before going any further, here’s a little introduction to the most common light sockets and their names:

  • E27: the most widespread thick, screw-in bulb

  • E14: the little brother of the previous one, but not with regards to the bulb size; the screw threads got thinner.

  • G10: this bulb is characterised by two pins that must be screwed into place

Check out Ikea’s site for light bulbs.

Before you start buying lightbulbs from memory (don’t do it!), go around your place and make a list of lightbulbs based on the following:

1) hallways: lobby, corridor, garage: you typically need light in these rooms only while you’re there. I’d suggest using motion sensor lights set to 1 minute. (https://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/20338944/)

2) rooms without windows: toilet, pantry. My suggestion is similar to version 1) above, but the motion sensor should be set somewhat longer, to 5 minutes maybe. You may get lost in your thought while going about your business here… The motion sensor, of course, will only know you’re there if you move. If darkness happens to descend on you, you can bring the light back by waving.

3) rooms that require constant light: kitchen. I suggest using a very dim light with motion sensor for the times when you hunt for your night-time snack, plus the old-school manually controlled lights that you can control as you need.

4) rooms that need mood lighting: living room, sitting room. I would use a motion sensor floor-light for going around at night, and I would use manual control for the other lights to control the intensity and colour of the lighting. Making these lights smart means that you may turn the lights on and off with a smart phone app. The selection is huge, pick according to your heart’s desire: https://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/categories/departments/lighting/smart_lighting/

Of all of these, my favourite is clearly the motion sensor light bulb. You can set it to stay on for 1-5-10 minutes after it detects the last movement, and to only switch on when it’s dark outside and you need artificial light. These two options and the fact that these bulbs operate independently of everything will turn your home smart in a snap. You can forget about the existence of most light switches.

Let’s tackle the main counter-argument right now: if your light is set to be on for 5 minutes, if you leave the room after just one minute, the light is on unnecessarily for 4 minutes. This is true but with today’s LED technology this is only marginally wasteful. You’d be much worse off leaving the light on accidentally for a night. So focus on solving this problem – it happens to many of us.

Less important kinds of automation

Having discussed the two top choices for home automation, let’s look at the less important options, which nonetheless do make your home more comfortable.

Infra-red washbasin taps: Since you’re retrofitting your home, only battery-operated taps can be used. In my experience, you won’t need to worry about replacing the battery more than once a year at most.

(Search for “infra basin taps” phrases.)

Bluetooth-compatible speakers in the living room: you can turn these on any time with your phone. The selection of these is really wide. You should decide first what you would want to use it for. By and large, there are three objectives:

  • background music (any kind of speaker would work but it should be small)

  • listening to music (independent solutions are available to buy. These are bigger; but they also give you better sound quality)

  • watching films (the amplifier must be Bluetooth-capable)

There are two ways to make power outlets more usable:

  • they should work not only as 220V-power outlets but also as USB chargers (for example, 
  • they should allow control from a cell phone

For increased safety, your smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector should also be smart. This way you’ll know if there’s a problem even when you’re away: www.nest.com

If you take these pieces of advice, you’ll end up with a 21st century home. And you haven’t even need to call a bricklayer or computer expert to achieve it.

Audio in the house – multi-room systems

Let’s start at the beginning: what’s the point of a multi-room audio system, such as Sonos?

Let’s start at the beginning: what’s the point of a multi-room audio system, such as Sonos? Although the home is divided into living spaces, it’s still used as a unit. Way back when, if you turned the volume of the living room radio high enough, you could hear it all over your apartment (and also next door, whether your neighbor wanted it or not). This was a simple solution to a problem you still have today: you want to listen to music while going about your business in your home. There are two distinct ways to listen to music in your home:

  • you want to hear the same music at the same volume regardless of which room you happen to be in
  • you want to listen to different music in different rooms

Music source

Online music subscriptions

Online streaming services have completely taken over as the source of music in recent years. Earlier multi-room systems focused on locally stored music. Today, the main goal is to integrate and easily manage online music subscription services (Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer).

Back in the day, when choosing what music to listen to, I used to just think about the music selection I’d collected. This changed a few years ago. Then if I heard a song I liked, I looked up the performer on Spotify, and checked out his/her songs online. More recently. I’ve started relying on online playlists created by others (such as Top ten lists). And the latest trend for me is to choose “moods” when listening to music. For example, if I want to listen to jazz when going to bed, I just start the playlist “Jazz at Night”.

Playing stored music

The storage drive is either directly connected to the multi-room system or it is linked to the network via a separate device. If you use a dedicated device, it should be DLNA-compatible, so the multiroom system can play music directly from it.

Audio via Aux input

This can be particularly practical if the Aux plug is in an easily accessible place. This connection method is typically used when the multi-room system gets the music from a guest’s cell phone.

Connecting via other wireless systems such as Bluetooth/Airplay

These methods help send the music playing on your phone to your multi-room audio system.

Where will the sound come from?

In some multi-room systems, the speaker and the receiver are built in one unit. Such devices typically cannot be built into your walls. If you have built-in ceiling speakers, they have a separate receiver and speaker output.

Before buying, you should consider the following:

  • is there room for floor standing speakers? should the speakers be standing towers, or should they be mounted on the wall or built into the wall/ceiling?
  • do you have a power source in the area where you want to put the audio system?
  • do you have a network connection or Wi-Fi signal in the area where you want to place the multi-room unit?
  • how humid is the environment? (bathroom, sauna)

Is it possible to link your multi-room system to your home theatre?

Yes, and the way to do it is to have the multi-room system set up as an audio input on the home theatre system. If you have an open concept kitchen-living room space, this setup allows you to listen to music using the multi-room system’s speakers in your kitchen and the home theatre in the living room.

How can you listen to the radio in the multi-room system?

Many multi-room systems allow you to listen to online radio stations. If yours does not, you can use your home theatre’s radio as an audio input. Unfortunately, in this case you won’t be able to change the channel with the app.

A few useful remarks from my personal experience

Now that we can control the multi-room system’s comfort functions with a simple cell phone app used much as a remote control, we’ve noticed that we listen to music much more than before. Household chores are less of a drag if you can listen to music while doing them.

PS: a low-cost multi-room system from the 1990s

Although it’s not available in my country, you can order from abroad radio transmitters strong enough to cover a 100 m diameter circle. Using this, you can provide music on a particular wave length available at every point in your home. In other words, you set up your own radio station, which can be heard by everyone around your home. This simple solution allows every musical device in your home to play the same music via this private radio station. It’s not that convenient but the outcome is just as good as it’d be with an up-to-date multi-room system.