A Retrospective: Home Control for the Differently Abled
On some FaceBook pages, I frequent. I had posted that I was planning to install some control tech in my parent’s home over the Christmas holiday. These are my adventures and observations.
A bit of back story. My father has several physical handicaps including both a missing leg and several fingers. Also, other disadvantages including, a head injury, the requirement to wear oxygen, and more. These make his ability to get to or manipulate many things around the home quite difficult.
Imagine if you will how annoying getting up to turn off a light is for an able-bodied person. Which of course many of us are. Now imagine you have to transfer to a wheelchair roll to the switch. Then in the dark manoeuver back to your bed or chair and transfer back. Alternatively, you must wake someone up to complete what for most is a trivial task.
So in an attempt to both give him more control over his environment and alleviate the number of things my mom has to do. It was decided that at least initially a series of Alexa controllable lights, a few strategically placed Echo Dots, and a few sensors and buttons could potentially make a big difference.
In all we installed the following:
- V2 SmartThings hub
- 17 – Zigbee smart bulbs
- Primarily IKEA as in Canada at least they seem to offer the most diverse base types for the lowest $$$
- Additionally, IKEA bulbs function as repeaters resulting in an extremely strong mesh
- V3 Echo Dots
- SmartThings buttons
- SmartThings contact sensors
- SmartThings leak sensor
A Couple Things People Always Ask:
Why bulbs over switches? This answer is multi-fold.
- First and foremost a quick inspection revealed none of the switches in my parent’s home contained a neutral. Sure you can in a properly grounded Canadian home use the ground as it is bonded to the neutral but I prefer not to as its code compliance is shaky.
- Second, my parents like myself given the option would like to be able to control individual bulbs in a multi-light fixture. At least to me, 2 bulbs at 25% are not the same as 1 at 50%. Especially in an enclosed fixture.
- For lamps, switch modules don’t provide dimming capabilities. Also, I refuse to use non-certified devices like Sonoff modules.
- Cost – even 3 smart bulbs for our large fixture cost less than a single dimmable switch
- Ultimately it comes down to device availability. Zigbee bulbs were easier to obtain.
- Also since the SmartThings sensors and buttons are Zigbee there was the added benefit of knowing there would a strong mesh for these endpoints
End goals achieved:
Light bulbs were installed literally everywhere but the spare bedroom and guest bath.
Echo Dots were placed in 3 locations – Master Bedroom, Living Room and Kitchen. This accomplishes several things:
- In all areas with controllable lighting, an Alexa device can hear your requests.
- More importantly in all areas where my Dad can reach in his wheelchair, an Alexa device can hear your requests.
- Why more important? My dad can now make a call to anyone he needs to reach without having to carry a phone. This is potentially especially critical if he were to fall from his chair when no one else is home.
My parents love music but being in their 80’s don’t really want to learn the in and outs of Bluetooth pairing and smartphone app interfaces just to hear a Johnny Cash song. So voice control and multi-room audio for the win.
SmartThings buttons were strategically placed at locations where my father might spend significant time. These control the lights nearest to that area. While voice control is nice, if you have a head injury like my father’s there are days when speech is not one of your strong suits. So by setting up different functions for Tap, Double Tap and Long Press he can have control even in those more difficult times. Additionally, they function if the internet is down as the control is local.
The sensors were placed strategically to alert my mother to potentially problematic situations. I.E. Water leaks or doors open after specific times of the day. Pretty normal home automation stuff but one less thing for her to worry about.
So What – Observations, oddities and solutions?
Thankfully I was able to stick around for a couple of weeks after the install to observe and tweak. There will be lots of tweaking.
I can’t stress enough – don’t install a system for someone unless you can be available a lot for the first while.
Having a similar system in my home for the past year. I was very conscious of naming things in a natural way if voice control in the primary control methodology. Even still after having my parents chose the names for all the devices and nearly 60 years of marriage it was obvious that they referred to the same things in different ways.
Alexa Groups to the rescue. Not only are groups useful for binding all the bulbs from a multi-bulb fixture together they can be used to provide alternate names for a single device. I.E. the bulb at the main entrance is both Front Door and Front Entrance.
The primary downside of bulbs over switches is unlearning the thing many of us were taught from day one. Turn off the light switches when you leave a room. Surprisingly in this instance that was not a huge learning curve for my parents. It took them just a couple of days to mostly get used to it. Even when they did they nearly always realized right away and turned the switch back on. But for many, this can be a behaviour that’s hard to unlearn.
Interestingly the biggest struggle I observed was them learning to speak the commands deliberately. Not rushing the commands is a big thing in voice control. Also if you make a mistake wait for the error message then try again. In previous experiments with both Alexa and Google, trying to change a command midstream confuses them.
Ultimately well before I left my parents were fairly used to the system and incorporating some of its functions into their daily routines. Dad who has terrible spells and just wants to listen to his favourite tunes. He was happy to not have to dig out a tablet search for a song, ensure the Bluetooth speaker was on and paired. Instead, he could just ask for whatever he wanted. Mom could set the lamp above her bed to just bright enough to read without disturbing my dad’s sleep.
All in all, I’m considering this first stage pretty successful. But considerable time and forethought went into both the environment and the end-users.
Having an end game within sight is crucial when building a system for someone else. Determine the critical functions, consider how they will be controlled, and provide for contingencies (i.e. internet outage). Understand the end-users and maybe just maybe it’ll work out. 🙂
We originally contributed this series of articles to the Smarter Home Club Blog starting on November 11, 2018. We are reposting it here to ensure our content remains available to all. Small corrections for grammar and spelling or dead links may have been made in the reposting.