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A Prairie HomeKit Companion: Core Concepts

At the end of “Getting Started with the Philips Hue Smart Light Bulbs” (1 August 2016), I touched on HomeKit, Apple’s framework for controlling home automation devices. Since then, we’ve received a lot of requests for more information on HomeKit and home automation, so in this series, I’ll explain what HomeKit is, how it works, and how to use it. I’ll also look at some of the home automation devices that work with HomeKit.

But first, let’s talk about why you might want to use home automation in the first place.

Why Home Automation? -- If you’ve never used home automation before, it can seem like a gimmick at best and a potential nightmare at worst.

Untold movies and TV shows have explored the potential horrors of home automation. Most recently, in an episode of “Mr. Robot,” a woman is driven from her home after hackers make her apartment go haywire.

Even if complete takeover of your home by revolutionary hackers is far-fetched, problems could be annoying. By definition, home automation takes place in your personal space, and buggy code or simple human error, even in Apple’s somewhat simplified offering, could have a real impact on your life. Think carefully before diving in.

But once you begin to use home automation, you start to see the everyday problems it can solve. Home automation may not change your world, but it can remove friction from your daily existence. Think about how many times a day you turn lights on and off, set your thermostat, adjust a ceiling fan, or check door locks. Even if it’s just a matter of making sure everything is as you want before bed, that’s a win. It can also compensate for the thoughtlessness of others — those people in your household who forget to turn off lights or check that the fridge is closed.

When you set home automation up intelligently, you’ll feel empowered, not overwhelmed. For Apple users, HomeKit offers the easiest, most secure way to achieve that goal.

This series will unfold over the next few weeks, but if you’re in a hurry to learn more, check out my book, “iOS 10: A Take Control Crash Course,” which has an entire chapter dedicated to HomeKit and iOS 10’s new Home app.

Why HomeKit? -- Apple’s HomeKit home automation framework gives hardware manufacturers and software developers a unified way to interact with home automation devices on iOS, tvOS, and watchOS.

Home automation isn’t new — the X10 home automation protocol has existed since 1975, and I’ve heard from readers who controlled home automation setups with Apple II computers!

By comparison, HomeKit is a baby. It debuted with iOS 8, although HomeKit-compatible devices didn’t start hitting the market until iOS 9. Even then, HomeKit control was rudimentary, relying on third-party apps. iOS 10 and watchOS 3 introduced Apple’s Home app, which offers a standardized way to manage and control HomeKit devices. Standard is good, but HomeKit is far from a complete home automation solution.

Every home automation vendor provides its own software, and some of those solutions offer capabilities beyond what HomeKit provides. Some systems, such as the Philips Hue, provide a complete developer API, which makes possible apps like Light DJ, which syncs your lights with music, something HomeKit can’t do. That’s just one example — an entire ecosystem has grown up around the Hue lights.

The other downside of HomeKit is that it can’t control just any device — manufacturers must work with Apple to have their devices certified for HomeKit. Based on my discussions with vendors, that’s challenging and expensive, though as I’ll explain, there are good reasons for that. As a result, the HomeKit ecosystem doesn’t offer as many options as more established and more open standards like X10.

So why use HomeKit at all? There are several excellent reasons:

  • Security: Apple has arguably the best security of any large consumer-oriented tech company. Remote access to HomeKit devices is disabled by default and can’t even be turned on unless you’ve enabled two-factor authentication on your Apple ID. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more secure home automation system that’s this easy to use.

    This advantage came into sharp focus recently with the DDoS attack that interrupted Internet service in the United States (see “Massive DDoS Attack Blocks Access to U.S. Web Sites,” 24 October 2016). That attack was made possible thanks to a plethora of insecure Internet of Things devices like DVRs and IP cameras.

    Last year, Forbes reported on the pains hardware vendors were experiencing making HomeKit devices to Apple’s exacting standards, especially when it comes to security. However, after seeing the destructive potential of insecure Internet-connected devices, I think we can better appreciate Apple’s rigorous approval process.

  • Integration: HomeKit devices work with the built-in Home app in iOS 10, and your favorite Accessories and Scenes automatically appear in the third pane of Control Center. Also, you can control your devices using Siri in iOS 10, tvOS 10, and watchOS 3.

  • Sharing: The Home app makes it easy to manage shared access to HomeKit devices. You can add and remove people, and decide whether or not they can edit your configurations. Also, changes you make to your HomeKit setup are automatically made available to everyone with whom you’re sharing.

  • Interoperability: The Philips Hue app is pretty good, but it can’t control my iHome iSP5 or Elgato Eve Energy smart plugs. With HomeKit, I can set up a Scene to turn all of those devices off at once. HomeKit’s goal is to let you forget about vendors and focus on functionality. Also, since HomeKit is an open framework, developers can create HomeKit control apps, some of which are more capable than Apple’s Home app.

  • Ease of Use: Home automation is complicated, but HomeKit offers the simplest, most unified home automation experience on the market. Apple’s Home app may not be the most powerful home automation app, but it won’t intimidate the casual user. Most HomeKit devices are plug-and-play.

As simple as HomeKit is to use, you need to understand its core concepts to feel in control and to know what I’m talking about in future HomeKit articles.

The HomeKit Hierarchy -- First, let’s go over a bit of necessary terminology, but don’t worry, it’s relatively straightforward.

Apple organized HomeKit into a hierarchy, which gives you various levels of control over your devices.

The highest level is a Home. A Home could be your residence, but it could also be an outbuilding, an office, a vacation home, or some other multi-room structure

In the next level down, you have Rooms. A Room is, as you’d guess, a section of a Home. You can set up your living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen as Rooms in your Home.

(Technically speaking, there’s another level of HomeKit hierarchy above Rooms: Zones, which are collections of Rooms. For instance, all the rooms downstairs in your house could be a Zone. However, Apple’s Home app doesn’t yet support Zones, so I won’t discuss them much in this series.)

Next in the hierarchy are Accessories, which are the home automation devices in your Home, like smart bulbs, wall plugs, locks, thermostats, ceiling fans, etc.

Accessories offer Services, which are the functions of the Accessory. For most devices, the Accessory and Service are indistinguishable, but some Accessories offer multiple Services. For example, my Elgato Eve Room sensor provides four Services: Current Temperature, Current Relative Humidity, Air Quality, and Battery Level.

However, Apple’s Home app blurs the line between Accessories and Services, listing Services as Accessories. It also doesn’t display the Eve Room’s Battery Level Service.

If you find the difference between Accessories and Services confusing, don’t worry about it. At the moment, it’s trivia.

You can also group Accessories to make operation simpler. For instance, I’ve grouped my two Hue-powered living room lamps, so I can adjust their color and brightness together. However, if I dig a little deeper into the Home app, I can still manipulate each one separately.

The HomeKit hierarchy is a bit of a pain, but it’s essential to a smooth HomeKit experience, especially when you use Siri. I can tell Siri to turn on the laundry room light or make my living room blue, and it understands my commands perfectly. (Well, most of the time. It’s still Siri.)

The last two terms you need to know are the most important: Scenes and Automations. A Scene is a collection of actions; for instance, my Good Night scene turns off the lamps in our laundry and music rooms, and dims the lights in the living room to zero (just enough light to see at night, without actually being off). Scenes are one of the most important concepts in home automation, and I’ll cover them extensively.

As the name suggests, Automations invoke Scenes automatically according to a user-specified schedule. I’ll cover these more in a future installment. When set up carefully, Automations can remove even more friction from your life.

For instance, on weekdays my wife usually wakes up earlier than I do. At 5:30 AM, my Good Morning scene turns on the lights in the laundry, music, and living rooms, so she doesn’t have to stumble through a dark house (our laundry room doubles as her closet, and the music room — a converted garage — adjoins the laundry room). At 8:30 AM, the Good Night scene turns off all those lights because by that time, she’s usually long gone from the house. At 3:00 PM, about the time she usually gets home from work, the Good Morning scene comes on again, so those areas of the house are well lit when she walks in and wants to change her clothes or prep for a music lesson. At night, we activate the Good Night scene manually, because we don’t all go to bed at a fixed time.

I’ve put a lot of thought into these Automations, so no one’s surprised by a light suddenly turning on or off. When my wife gets up, the lights she needs are on. They turn off after she leaves, and they’re back on when she gets home. And that’s with only two Scenes!

With careful planning, your automated home can be just as seamless.

Planning Your HomeKit Home -- If you’re intrigued by the promise of HomeKit and want to start playing with home automation, I have a few recommendations.

First, communication is essential. Discuss your plans before you start buying stuff so everyone in the house has input. If your partner or roommate isn’t technical or might be bothered by the inevitable learning pains, consider starting with a single device. In the most extreme case, you might learn that home automation isn’t worth the conflict it may cause.

If you’re planning to set up automated lights and smart plugs, it’s important to discuss our habit of using physical switches. For instance, if I turn off a switch that controls a lamp with Hue bulbs, my HomeKit Scene can’t turn them back on automatically, which could leave my wife fumbling in the early morning darkness.

The solution to this problem is to install smart switches that can work with your home automation system and be activated manually (which is also helpful for guests). Elgato just released the first HomeKit-enabled wall switch, the Eve Light Switch. Philips makes a couple for use with the Hue bulbs — the Philips Hue Dimmer Switch and the Philips Hue Tap Switch. iDevices announced a couple of HomeKit wall switches months ago, but they have yet to appear on the market. At first, you’ll probably have to get used to using your iPhone or Apple Watch to control lights. I haven’t personally used any of these smart switches yet, so I can’t currently offer a recommendation. (If you have, let us know in the comments!)

When the decision makers in your home understand and agree to home automation, the next step is figuring out where to begin. I recommend starting small with some sort of light control, either the Philips Hue system or a smart plug like the iHome SmartPlug or Elgato Eve Energy.

Everyone I know who has tried Hue loves it (including our own Jeff Carlson, who regularly curses me for hooking him on home automation), but with starter kits ranging between $80 and $200, it’s an investment. However, if you want to start with a simple smart plug to control a lamp, the iHome iSP5 costs only about $30, while the Elgato Eve Energy goes for about $50. The benefit of these smart plugs is that you can use them with any appliance that plugs into a standard power outlet, so they give you a lot of room to experiment.

Once you decide on your initial HomeKit investment, the next step is figuring out where to use it.

Again, take it easy at the start so you and your family can get a feel for the experience. There are so many possibilities that it can be tempting to jump in with both feet. Fight that temptation. Before I got my Hue bulbs, I didn’t think there was any point in having just a handful of automated bulbs. After I started playing with them, I realized that I didn’t need many to have a functional setup, since our most-used lights are the two floor lamps in our living room.

So think about where automation could have the most impact in your home. If you go for the Hue bulbs, the living room is an obvious place to start. But maybe there’s a certain light that your family members always forget to turn off, or a basement light that you’d prefer to turn on before you venture down the stairs. If you have a smart plug, you might even want to use it to turn a space heater or fan on and off at certain times.

The keys to an intelligent smart home are communication and thoughtful planning. Nail those, and you’ll find that home automation makes your home a more pleasant, comfortable place that doesn’t require you to run around changing settings and turning things on and off. The tips, techniques, and products that I’ll discuss in the rest of this series are just means to that end.

Check out the Take Control ebooks that expand on the topic in this article:

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Comments about A Prairie HomeKit Companion: Core Concepts
(Comments are closed.)

Anonymous  2016-11-03 13:34
I have been using X-10 home automation since 1981. I switch lights and outlets for 110 VAC and 220 VAC devices. It has phase couplers for both legs of the incoming power and signal amplifiers for large homes. I use a plug-in controller that is connected to and programmed by an old iMac running OS 9.2. The only thing lacking is decent control software that is up to date.
I am interested in HomeKit but, from what I see, it is still 35 years behind in capabilities. I will watch HomeKit development but, for now, I will stick to the MUCH less expensive X-10 system and just hope someone will produce control software for it.
Chuck Shotton  2016-11-03 13:47
There's a cool open source alternative to a hardware hub. You can get an application called HAP-NodeJS that will run on just about any flavor of computer (Macs for sure) that makes the Mac, itself, into a HomeKit hub. Then you can configure it to act as a bridge to all sorts of HomeKit-unaware things (like WeMO for example). It can also react to Siri commands to interact with virtual devices that can be hooked up to AppleScripts or other programs. You have to be a bit of a hacker to make it go, but you can find it at https://github.com/KhaosT/HAP-NodeJS
David Redfearn  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2016-11-03 16:04
I have to laugh at this stuff - I don't see the value at all.

>>Think about how many times a day you turn lights on and off (twice a day)
set your thermostat (once a month - they are already programmed via my electrical utility)
adjust a ceiling fan (twice a day in the summer, not at all in the winter)
or check door locks (a couple times a day).

I tried the colored light bulbs, and they didn't work well and returned them.

I agree that Apple's HomeKit is the most secure way to control these things, but no-way would I trust _any_ internet connected door locks to provide real security.

These are great for those who like to play around with technology - not so much for the rest of us.

David
Joe Carl White  2016-11-03 22:24
"Elgato just released the first HomeKit-enabled wall switch, the Eve Light Switch."

Lutron Caseta dimmer switches are HomeKit enabled (in conjunction with the SmartHub); I installed my first one at the beginning of the year, and just added a second. http://www.casetawireless.com/pages/applehomekit.aspx
Yorick  2016-11-04 18:58
I started playing with HomeKit Devices (EcoBee Thermostat, iHomeControl and iDevices power sockets). I use the Apple Home app and also the Wink App. I wanted the light in my living room to turn on automatically when I arrived home if it was dark so that I didn't walk into an empty house. Then I set the lights to turn on at dusk and off at random late times when I'm away. Plus the lights all turn off at a set time after I've gone to bed in case I forget. If I remember I can always say "Hey Siri, turn off all the lights". Plus my girlfriend who is 5,000 miles away can turn them off if she knows I forgot. I can check the temperature in the house if I am away and the thermostat will warn me if it is too hot or cold. On the way home from work (a 25 minute drive) I can turn the heating on to arrive home to a warm house. I've played with X.10 since '98 but HomeKit and the like take it to a new level.
JohnB (SciFiOne)   2016-11-09 12:24
Good article. I enjoyed it. As someone in my 70th year, I have no plans to use home automation (In fact I hope to actively evade it) but it is interesting to read about.
CJ Pitt  2016-11-13 12:42
Thanks for this article...and any additional in the series. These are the types of articles I enjoy. They give you ideas on how to use all this technology Apple is providing...albeit without much useful documentation.

I think we could also use a similar series of articles on HealthKit and the other assorted Apple Kits.
Joseph Haefeli  2016-11-14 20:52
The distinction needs to be made between controlling your home world from over the internet, verses requiring the internet to make your home automation work.

The former is a manageable security risk by the end user, including the option to simply not allow connections from your home automation to the outside world.

The latter is a total PITA. It almost always requires an active internet connection for even the simplest activities to occur, and exponentially increases your home automation system's exposure to outside vulnerabilities malicious or inadvertent. This might be worth it for the benefits of Siri or Alexa, or ITTT sorts of control, but the fact that your thermostat potentially becomes a cripple without internet is simply rediculous. There's more issues, but I'm not paid here.... Just keep this particular topic in mind, esp. if you plan on using home automation to provide security and safety for your remote vacation home with splotchy power and no continuous internet.
Steve Nicholson  2016-11-18 09:01
When we had an addition built in 2013 I had Insteon switches installed just about everywhere along with a few 8-button in-wall touch pads. We also have controllers in our three ceiling fans, an irrigation controller, six LIFX bulbs, four motion sensors (one of which is also a temperature sensor), a couple of smart outlets, and three Nest thermostats (which also report temperature). I've been controlling them all through Indigo (https://www.indigodomo.com), a Mac home automation program that's been around since 2002. It also has a companion iOS app and an optional subscription cloud service for control over the Internet. For us programmers, it even has a full Python scripting interface.

While I can do a ton of geeky stuff with this system, it was also important to be sure that it works like a normal house too. When a visitor comes over, all the light switches work like normal light switches. If we have a house-sitter I only need to give them a couple extra instructions. (The LIFX lights can be turned on and off with the touchpad C button, and the bottom-right button cycles through the ceiling fan speeds.)

Now that it's getting dark before we're home from work, I have a few lights come on at sunset so the house isn't sitting dark before we come home. If we're working on the drip system, we can use our iPhones to turn that irrigation valve on or off from anywhere in the yard. I can double-click off my bedside light switch to turn off all exterior lights. If we're going to be out of town, I can check a few checkboxes to enable a series of lighting control schedules to simulate us being home. We have scenes set up for cooking, watching TV, and getting ready for bed. I can turn the bedroom heater on to take the chill off before getting out of bed.

My favorite geek accomplishment is my Python script that creates a graph of temperature history along with a forecast from Weather Underground that I can pull up on my iPad from anywhere (http://i.imgur.com/3LixaAd.jpg).

HomeKit is ok, but it can't hold a candle to a full-blown home automation system. Is any of this stuff necessary? Absolutely not. Is it convenient and fun? You better believe it.
Mike Cohen  2017-01-29 22:27
I'm using an Elgato Eve outlet switch. My main use for it is to automatically turn on my living room light when I'm near my home using a location automation and to turn the light off when I leave.

I'm looking for a HomeKit compatible dimmer wall switch. Any recommendations?