I recently moved into a new house with my girlfriend. It is our first property we have owned and a big step up from the shoebox flat we were living in before.
In our previous flat, I was able to have limited home accessories - basically lights and HomePods - but owning a property meant I could go all in.
I say I, as it’s me driving this enthusiasm, although my girlfriend gets along pretty well with all automation and Siri commands.
I thought it would be fun to detail how and why I made this setup, and maybe it will give you some tips as it’s worked well for me.
This article covers the initial set up. Part 2 next week covers my automation setup, including Shortcuts, Siri and other 3rd party apps.
rules to live by
The first thing to do when setting up an automated home is to plan!
You’ll quickly run into problems if you don’t know what you’re doing, why or in which order.
My rules I set were simple:
- Secure setup.
This meant being able to control everything through the Home app. HomeKit is a secure framework and, unlike Amazon and Google, has privacy baked in.
- No pointless accessories
If it doesn’t have a good use or make something easier, don’t get it. If you can control something by hand quicker than you can via Siri or automation, then it’s not improving your way of life; it’s just complicating it.
- Keep brands to a minimum
Try not to have several brands doing the same thing (e.g. controlling the heating).
- 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.
I then had a process; an order of doing things:
- Set up complete coverage wifi
- Set up Home hubs
- Set up third party hubs with their accessories
- Add each third party hub to HomeKit (bringing their accessories with them)
- Add additional accessories to HomeKit
With that, all planned out, and everything bought, I got started.
the first brick
The first thing I did was make sure our home had a good wifi signal throughout. This should always be the first and possibly most crucial step. Things like Zigbee and the new Thread radios in devices are helping improve responses by turning devices into nodes that communicate through each other rather than all the way back to your router. Still, if your home has terrible wifi, then your home accessories will not work reliably. Simple as that.
Our wifi is through Virgin Media and comes in the front of the house, meaning the signal at the back is pretty much non-existent, this being an old property. I solved this issue with some mesh routers. Many people get signal repeaters that plug into the wall, but these are just not good and rely on your home electrics. Not good in an old house like this.
I went for the TP-Link Deco range as they look good aesthetically and can be placed anywhere without standing out too much.
The best place to position routers is high in the room and away from electrical equipment. It’s also crucial that they are not going through too many thick objects to reach the next router as this reduces signal. I used three. One high above the door in the Study (where the broadband enters the house), the next in the corridor right on the corner of a bend it has, halfway down. The final one was placed at the end of the corridor right at the living room entrance, which is the back room and whose door is always open. The only object the signal goes through is one bit of wall from the study to the hallway, meaning I only drop about a fifth of speed from node one to two and barely anything from node two to three.
enough home hubs for a small country
The next part of building the HomeKit home was setting up the home hubs. We already had a stereo HomePod pair for the living room Apple TV and another for our previous bedroom. I moved the solo HomePod into the study and got two HomePod Minis - one for the bedroom and one for the kitchen. We now had whole-home audio, which is fantastic for playing music around the whole house while getting ready in the morning or doing tasks around the house at the weekend.
While all these HomePods can act as home hubs, it’s the Apple TV, which is the designated one as I’ve run an ethernet cable from the front of the house to the back and straight into it. Mesh routers are great, but there’s no substitute for a stable signal through an ethernet connection. This also significantly improved loading times and scrubbing speeds while using the Apple TV.
After setting up the building blocks of HomeKit, it was time to add accessories. Again, I was very careful to do this in a particular order. Setting up an automated home is generally easy, IF you do it logically, building one thing on top of another.
One year ago, I would have recommended getting accessories that use a hub every time. However, new products that have Thread radios in them are making devices just as responsive without hubs.
These products are still relatively rare, though, as Thread is starting to roll out, so for the moment, I’m sticking to hubs for everything if I can. If a product is communicating using Bluetooth, it’s a big no-no. Response times are slow, and they often go offline. I know many people love Eve, and I have their smoke alarms, but I previously had their radiator thermostats. They frequently went offline, became un-contactable, and were generally unreliable. Why? They used Bluetooth and no hub.
So my home heating set up is with the very much hub capable tado°. I took comfort that they focus entirely on smart heating devices, so they seem to be a very focused company.
This was the first hub and category of products I set up. I used the tado° Extension Kit to wire into my boiler and control whether it needs to be turned on or not based on if a Radiator Thermostat needs it. This means that if no radiator needs power, then the boiler will be off, saving energy and saving us money.
Set up was a slow but steady and straightforward process. The app leads you through the steps to wire it correctly, and then I mounted it to the wall. As part of this, I also set up the tiny and cute hub.
The next step was to add smart thermostats to all the radiators. Each thermostat took about 5 minutes to attach and add.
I then spent way too much time obsessing over the exact schedule for heating in each room. This could take you anywhere from 2 to 30 minutes, depending on who you are!
To add them all to HomeKit, you simply scan the code on the mini-hub.
Manual control - You can manually adjust the radiators by turning the top of each thermostat, and the Extension Kit also has a button for manually turning on the boiler.
let there be light
Next up is lights. I’ll be honest, this is a no-brainer, and it should be for you. While other companies do lighting and some do it well, there can be many reliability issues. Some are starting to introduce Thread technology but if you want a set up that is simple and reliable, then look no further than Philips Hue. They are bringing out some Bluetooth capable lights but for reliability reasons, always choose the ones that use the hub. Sure there is an additional cost for the hub, but it’s worth it, and all Hue bulbs have a 3-year warranty.
The feeling you get from Hue is a solid consumer product that, while smart, is still aimed at the everyday user.
You add the hub to HomeKit, and, like tado°, all the lights are automatically added.
HomeKit will then prompt you to use adaptive lighting on bulbs that support it. This is great, and I turned it on for all of them.
I added bulbs for every main light in the house and all the lamps.
I also added Hue switches over the main light switch in each room using this ingenious adaptor. This allows manual control when entering or exiting a room without having to use Siri all the time.
Finally, I added some Hue motion sensors for automation which I’ll cover in part 2.
Manual control - The switches control each light, plus if you flick the power switch on any light off and on, then the lights will turn on like normal.
fire in the disco
Smoke alarms are one of the essential home accessories that have been around for years and are now so important that your landlord is legally obliged to provide them in your home.
We now, of course, don’t have a landlord, so we have to do it ourselves.
I had two Eve alarms from our previous flat, and these worked ok. Or as ok as I can tell without a fire, though they did go off during some cooking accidents!
I brought these over to the new house and added three more alarms from Netatmo. While this goes against my policy of reducing the number of brands, these were at a ridiculously low price during an Amazon sale, so I made an exception.
Both brands were easy to install and add to HomeKit; the majority of the time was spent on a ladder attaching to the ceiling!
Manual control - The smoke alarms are manual by nature, with the smarts built over the top. If it detects smoke, it goes off. The big button stops the alarm and also tests it. Same as a non-smart alarm.
security courtesy of China
Yes, that doesn’t sound appealing, does it? What with China’s record for human rights and surveillance.
But that’s what I did with my last main category of accessories.
Due to their ability to be used as a hub and also be added straight into the secure HomeKit setup without the need for using their app (and potentially opening myself up to China’s watchful eye), I went for two Aqara G2H cameras. Bonus: they’re super cute!
We have a home security system as well, but it’s good to have that extra layer of visibility. Plus, it can be helpful when trying to track down playful kittens!
To those two hubs, I added contact sensors for all windows and the back door. Again, another layer of security but also good for checking if you’ve left a window open when you’re heading out.
Manual control - These don’t control anything, so if the power goes, you can’t check them.
blinded by the light
Finally, I bought some IKEA automated blinds for the bedroom and study. I find it strange that the choice of automated blinds out there is so limited as it’s such a handy feature.
As reported by many people, the setup for these blinds is not fun. It’s easy to mount the blinds and connect to the remote. However, when you add to the hub to enable control from your phone of HomeKit, the IKEA app is so unreliable. After repeated fails, while trying to add the blinds, it eventually added them. I have no idea what made it finally succeed!
Remote control blinds are fine, but the real benefit comes from automation, which I’ll cover in part 2 later this week.
Manual control - the remote doesn’t need the IKEA app or HomeKit to control the blinds. Worse comes to worst; there’s even up/down buttons on the blinds themselves.
more to add
I also added a smart plug from Meross (it was on sale) to control our diffuser in the living room.
In the near future, I have plans to add a video doorbell (probably the Logitech Circle View) and smart lock for the front door (not sure which one, choice in the UK seems limited - any suggestions, please let me know!).
I may also use some outdoor weather station once I get our garden sorted and maybe even a smart water controller.
job done. almost
All in all, the process took me around 6 hours, but it should be said that about an hour of that was me carefully wiring up the tado° Extension Kit to the boiler, and another 45 minutes was wrestling with the terrible IKEA app. It probably took another 45 minutes or so to mount all the smoke alarms on the ceiling too.
So it’s not a quick job, but overall it did go smoothly, and everything has been playing nicely for a month now. I firmly believe that is because I planned ahead and followed my rules at the start of this article.
In part 2, I’ll dive into automation properly, setting HomeKit scenes, Shortcuts and the state of Siri as part of home automation. (Spoiler alert: it’s massively hit and miss.)
In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions or comments about my setup.