Last week, I went through how I constructed my HomeKit setup around our new house.
In part 2, I’m going to talk about how I took all that smart tech and made it smarter and easier to use with automation and Siri, using triggers and the Shortcuts app.
Let’s dive in.
more rules to live by
In part 1, I set out some rules to base my HomeKit setup around. When creating automations, this was also something I had to do. However, almost all automations are not essential to living in a HomeKit house.
For example: I have a motion sensor set up in the bathroom for turning on the light when someone enters. If it didn’t work for some reason, that’s fine; they can press the switch on the wall. It’s not the end of the world.
One of my 4 rules was this:
“Be able to do things manually - Power can fail, and so can tech. Also, visitors may not have HomeKit access or even like home automation. Accessories must also have manual control.” The above comment about my bathroom holds up here. The automation with the motion sensor would be stupid to have without the manual switch.
With that in mind, I’ve added two categories of automation:
- Automations that improve daily life (like the bathroom one above)
- Fun ones that are a ‘nice to have’ extra.
One of the easiest and best automations to set up is a motion detector. You can get them to trigger something (either a series of actions or just turning a device on and off) when it sees motion or when it stops detecting motion. You can also add these actions based on things like times of day or even more advanced triggers in third party apps. They can also send you an alert to your iPhone when you are not in and it detects motion, should you wish.
I got three Philips motion detectors and put one in the bathroom and one at either end of the hallway.
Unless it’s a really sunny day, the lights in the hallway and bathroom generally need to be on when someone is there. However, except for the morning shower, no one is in either place very long. Often just passing through.
So I set up automations for them that turn on the lights when motion is detected and turn off after 3 minutes of no motion. Unfortunately, all these various parameters cannot be set within the home app or even the third-party apps that extend HomeKit operability. Luckily, while I don’t use it to operate lights, the Hue app is quite solid about setting up automations. So this was done in there.
One great extra is that the Hue app (and the Home app) allows you to specify what strength the light comes on at a specific part of the day. This is fantastic for when you go to the toilet in the middle of the night. I have it set to 10% brightness after midnight and before 7 am, so if either of us does get up, we aren’t woken up fully and can continue in our semi-conscious state, zombie-walking back to bed. This is one way automation in the home shines: simple, effective, improves daily life, and once you’ve set it up, you can completely forget about it.
hey Siri, wake up!
For our morning routine, I have several actions set up in one Shortcut automation tied to the iPhone’s ‘Sleep Mode’.
I have this set to wake me up at 7:30 am every weekday and 8:30 am Saturday & Sunday. Though I’ll confess, this often gets pushed to 8 am when I’m heading to bed the night before or gets snoozed several times!
When I turn the alarm off on my iPhone or Apple Watch upon waking, the action triggers a Shortcuts automation that checks what day of the week it is. If it’s a weekday, it sets the Bedroom HomePod Mini to a specific volume, changes playback destination on my iPhone to the HomePod Mini and starts playing BBC 6 Music via the BBC Sounds app. (Annoyingly, while HomePods now support playing radio stations directly that doesn’t cover BBC stations, so I have to do this workaround.)
The Shortcut then sets my Apple Watch to a face that shows the weather, my rings, battery and a complication for the workout app.
Finally, it triggers a Home Scene, which raises all the blinds and turns the lights off in case they’ve already been turned on due to one of us being up early.
Once we’re up, we like having 6 Music playing all around the house on the HomePods, but unfortunately, you can’t automate playback to multiple destinations with Shortcuts. So when we’re out of bed, I’ll often quickly tap the AirPlay icon on my Home Screen and select the other HomePods.
Shortcuts often provide a much-needed extension to home automation, so it’s always worth checking them out and working them into your daily routine.
hey Siri, I’m sleepy
Conversely, I have several automations to help us wind down.
One simple one is that I have all the blinds set to go down at sunset. As I mentioned in part one, this is the excellent part about automated blinds. It’s not that you can power them up and down; it’s that you can set the times of day to open and close, then forget about them. Let’s be honest, you’re never really putting your blinds up and down during the day, so this saves you time and effort.
We also have HomeKit Adaptive Lighting set up on our bulbs to gradually bring a warm hue to all the rooms as we wind down in the evening.
Then when we’re actually in bed, I have a Shortcut that, when we say ‘Hey Siri, goodnight”, turns off all the lights, closes all the blinds (if for some reason one has been opened after sunset) and checks to see if all windows and doors are closed, returning an answer via Siri.
Finally, I have an automation to set the volumes on all the HomePods to 10% at midnight. That way, if a HomePod is accidentally triggered or for some reason we want to ask Siri something in the middle of the night, we won’t be shocked awake by the loud volume. (Sometimes if I wake up early and want to know the time without opening my eyes, I’ll ask!)
Oh, and I also have the plug for the diffuser turned off at 11 pm each night for safety reasons.
End-of-day automations give good piece of mind that you’ve turned everything off and closed everything, making that sleepy part of the day easier.
hey Siri, set the scene
Setting HomeKit Scenes is a convenient way of setting the mood for whatever you’re doing. However, I’d advise planning ahead rather than just building a new one each time you think of an instance you could use one.
Simplicity is the name of the game. Having several Scenes for watching TV overcomplicates things. You also need to be aware of other people you’re living with who might not want to remember the names of 20 different Scene names.
For instance, we have just two scenes for watching TV; one for watching a movie and one for watching TV. “Hey Siri, Cinema Lights” turns off all the lights except for a small lamp in the corner, which is set to 5%. Enough to let us see our popcorn but low enough to keep us immersed in the movie. Alternately, “Hey Siri, TV Lights” sets the lamp to 50%, the main light to 50% and also turns off another lamp that reflects off the TV. Of course, we might want movie mode when watching a favourite TV Show, but at least it’s very clear what sort of scene creates what kind of mood.
It’s also handy for heading to bed. “Hey Siri, Bedtime” sets the sidelight to 50% and turns the main light off. After all, no one wants to get ready for bed with full blinding lights! I also have a ‘Bedroom Low Light’ scene for when I’m up late gaming or for the days when I’d been out at the pub with friends (ah, remember when we could do that?), and my girlfriend has already gone to bed. The scene sets the sidelight to 1%. Just enough to see what I’m doing without waking her.
Finally, buttons linked to HomeKit Scenes can be handy too. I have a small Philips button next to my side of the bed which, when pressed, triggers the above ‘Goodnight’ scene. This means if I’m heading to bed when my girlfriend is already asleep I don’t have to ask Siri and wake her up.
Scenes are a crucial part of home automation. Set them up well, and they are beneficial.
hey Siri, notify me
While we do have an alarm system, I also have the home app set up to notify me if a window or door is opened when we are out. While the alarm would go off, I wouldn’t know this straight away on the other side of town, so it provides another layer of comfort.
You might not have an alarm system, so you could set this up as a DIY security system along with notifying you of any movement on your cameras. (I have that turned off due to having cats running around the house when we’re out).
There are many things to be notified of in your home, so take a look into the app and discover more.
wish lists and flaws
As with everything, there are flaws, and HomeKit automation is no different.
One of my most wished for improvements is being able to change the AirPlay destination to multiple outputs at once. I love having 6 Music on while getting ready and moving around the house in the morning. Doing 3/4 taps on my iPhone to send the station from the bedroom HomePod to all others is hardly the a disaster, but it does mean the morning routine is not fully automated just yet.
Another request is that I’d love to have the states of HomePods and Apple TV’s be open to HomeKit. Having the Apple TV be able to trigger a lighting scene when it started playing would be great!
It’s also bizarre how third-party apps like Home+ have access to deeper actions, triggers and ‘if’ states when creating automations. It’s not witchcraft; Apple decides not to make them accessible in the first-party app.
Speaking of the first-party app; boy, does it need a redesign. The UI is not the best and not immediately very intuitive. The tiles also take up a massive part of the screen, meaning you’re pretty much constantly scrolling to access something.
And finally, the biggest flaw of all is Siri. It would be very easy for me to descend into a rant about this, but I’m just going to lay out some facts:
- Siri has definitely got worse at recognising words. So much so that I had to rename one of my lights, as ‘Side Lamp’ and ‘Side Light’ (that were in different rooms) were too complex for it to distinguish between, which is plain bad.
- General intelligence needs to be drastically improved. I recently asked Siri what the weather was, and its response was, “I’m sorry, I don’t know where you are”. Seriously?! On a static HomePod tied to my home, which has a location, and you don’t know?!
- Siri needs to be more conversational too. To the point above, why didn’t Siri then ask me, “where are you?”. I’ve asked a question, don’t just give up.
- Siri also needs to be LESS conversational. My most hated Siri tick is that it’s too descriptive of what it’s doing. A typical instance would be “Hey Siri, lights 50%”... waits 3/4 seconds... “Ok, I’ve set the lights in the living room to 50%”. All this time, the volume on the HomePod has lowered considerably, so if I have a podcast on, I need to rewind about 15 seconds. Just say “done”, or better yet, if I’m in the room, nothing at all - I’ll be able to see for myself when the lights change.
It’s not that Siri IS ‘home automation’ per se. But in an automated home, it’s a crucial part that Apple have implemented. It is undoubtedly more preferred than getting your iPhone out, opening up the app, scrolling to an accessory and then actioning. If it doesn’t work, then it degrades the experience.
Apple certainly isn’t giving up on home automation, and at the moment, you can have an excellent experience with HomeKit. However, I wish they were more ‘all in’ on it. They have some fantastic foundations to create a great platform, including privacy and the ‘Apple Ecosystem’, and I don’t think it would take a considerable effort to push it further.
Apple’s quick implementation of Thread technology in the HomePod Mini and now the new Apple TV 4K show they are thinking about it. I hope that this year’s WWDC will bring some more advancements in this area.
I really enjoy having an automated home. Planning and rational consideration of what to do have made it an enjoyable, easy and, most of all, helpful experience.
If you have any questions or comments, get in touch.
If you’re thinking of building your own HomeKit home, here are some great resources and HomeKit masters to check out:
Jon Ratcliffe/HomeKit Authority
Chris Young/HomeKit Geek
Shane Whatley/Shane Creates