Home Automation life hacks – Part 4

Home Automation life hacks – Part 4

Alright folks, this is what drove me to write this entire series in the first place. I finally get to geek out about home automation! In part 3 of this series I talked about ergonomics & overall wellness which is worth a read if you jumped straight to this because it is geeky and about gear too.

When we moved into our house 5 years ago I decided that I wanted to start making the shift to leverage home automation as much as we could. My wife is more old school than I am, so there is a delicate balance that we have found between what I want and what she will allow. I have no illusions about it, she is the boss. If the boss isn’t happy, nobody is going to be happy no matter how cool their geek toys are.

I am not going to go into all of the aspects of our home automation partly because they don’t relate directly to optimization of working from home, and partly because there are sickos out there that I don’t want to have details about my home defense posture… which is rigid. Imagine Pitfall with bigger 8-bit alligators. Just don’t try it…

Lighting in general

Everyone in the world is in love with light rings… except for me. I hate them. Like Golum hates Hobbits, I hate light rings. Toss in any light that shines directly IN my face to that category. I know how popular key lights and light rings are right now, but I have been light sensitive my entire life and I cannot look directly into lights or suffer intense pain. I wear sunglasses on cloudy days not because I think it makes me look cool, but because otherwise I literally cannot see.

So what do you do when you need to be on camera most of your working day but cannot tolerate the “optimal lighting”? The issue really is when it comes to web cams it is ALL about the lighting. The best webcam in bad lighting is most often worse than a terrible webcam with great lighting. People use light rings because they make you look fantastic not because they like them.

My home automation setup

Cut to my home automation project. I did my research and found that Philips Hue was the brand that I was going to standardize my house on. The link I just gave is to a search page because there are lots of options in the Hue line. When I was just starting this there was a rebate going on and prices were at the floor for LED bulbs, but occasionally you can find deals on these because they are not cheap.

Smart Hub

You need 1 Philips Hue Smart Hub in your network that can control everything. The Smart Hub integrates with both Amazon Alexa and Apple Home Kit, as well as other platforms like home security systems.

There are alternatives to Philips Hue such as Samsung SmartThings and others. If that is the path you decide to take or just want to hear more on the topic, I encourage you to go check out my friends AC & CJ’s podcast, The Microsoft Cloud Show, in the episode where they geek out on home automation using these kinds of alternatives. Their show is great overall so you should check it out even if you go follow my path.

The smart hub concept allows me to tie into the lights from many controlling devices such as the Echo Dot that sits on my desk or in the kitchen, the Flic button I got for speaking at the SharePoint Conference a few years ago, and even the widgets on my iPhone and iPad.

Office & Camera lighting

I have a ceiling fan in my office with a lighting kit that contains 4 bulbs. At first I went with 4 Philips Hue White A19 60W bulbs, but I didn’t care for the whites for the duration that I spend in the office. I tried a pair of Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 LED Smart Bulb with 2 of the white bulbs and found it to be better. Over time I switched out for all color bulbs and have added a bit of blue into the white to get the desired effect.

That solved the ambient light riddle but not the camera lighting issue. Since I cannot stand looking into lights I went with an old school solution that Jilly suggested: overhead track lighting.

my overhead track lighting

The cost was considerably lower than most of the fancy light ring & key light solutions I looked at with the added benefit of being out of my vision. With the smart bulbs I am able to get the brightness just right.After a trip to Home Depot & a purchasing pair of Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance BR30 LED Smart Bulb from smile.amazon.com I was all set.

Free / Busy lighting

There is a song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young called Teach Your Children that plays in my head when we get to this topic. Having worked from home for so long and having kids there is a game that you have to play around free/busy. I have found that you cannot always be busy when they are around or else you can never be truly busy.

There are many awesome community folks out there that have created project that connect to the Skype/Zoom/Teams APIs and get Free/Busy to set home automation lighting so that you can alert the others in your house to your status. I found this to be a complete failure for me because my calendar is always full and the red light was always on. The kids therefore didn’t respect it and would just walk right in regardless.

For the past couple of years I have manually set my “alerting” lights to indicate when I cannot be disturbed and need the house to be quieter than normal. This has worked out fabulously.

The only bathroom on the first floor of our house is just outside my office door and the hall light contains 2 Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 LED Smart Bulbs. The light stays off until I set the widget on my iPhone to on-air. The light is visible from the living room, kitchen, and breakfast room.

The iPhone widgets

There is also a light outside the kids playroom/classroom upstairs that turns red when I set the widget to on-air. This makes sure that no matter where in the house you are it is obvious that I need it to be quiet.

By using this setting expeditiously I am able to get the other occupants, save the cats, to respect the on-air light and my need for quiet.

The younger dude gets it

Wrapping it up

Since we are just a few minutes to go live on the Microsoft Ignite Table Talk that caused me to finally write this up I am going to have to put a bow on this series for now. I am sure that there are things that I forgot to mention, but hopefully you have found this all useful.

Everyone finds their own optimal set up for working from home eventually. The key is tweaking things until you get yourself most comfortable. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and your tips down in the comments.

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