I explained in my first HomePod Diary piece that there was one smart home issue we needed to address: while I’m happy to use Siri to control everything from my Apple Watch or iPhone, my partner would often find that she wanted to switch lights on or off while her phone was in another room. We’d partially addressed this with Hue dimmer switches, but wanted more flexibility.
Some kind of smart speaker was the obvious solution to this, and the HomePod would have the advantage of being able to act as a HomeKit hub too.
In my HomePod Diary, I’ve been focusing mostly on music, but I’m also happy to report that the smart speaker has also passed the Steph Test …
Steph has no interest in an Apple Watch, and her clothing doesn’t all have pockets – meaning her phone can easily be in one room while she’s in another.
Since almost all our lighting is Philips Hue, which is platform-agnostic, my first thought was that we could place an Amazon Echo Dot in the living-room – which I hoped could be heard from the glazed balcony as well as the alcove kitchen. These are cheap enough that it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to sprinkle two or three of these about the apartment if needed.
But one other thing missing from our smart home setup was timed automation. We don’t have a TV of any kind, so an Apple TV isn’t an option. An older iPad would have done the trick, but a colleague then pointed out that this could be a cheap way to get a HomePod.
However, Zac pointed out yesterday that HomePod could instead be the hub. Since we’d get almost two-thirds of the cost by selling her old iPad, and we’d be saving another £50/$50 by not having to buy an Echo Dot, the net cost would actually be rather low. We’d be buying a HomeKit hub and voice control system and getting a speaker thrown in for a small premium.
I’ve always found Siri a reliable and convenient way to do things, but the big question was whether Steph would feel the same.
The good news is that she does. She told me a couple of days ago that she liked HomePod as a way to control lights, and she’s found it as reliable as I have at hearing her voice from almost anywhere in the apartment.
The only issue she’s hit is remembering what the various lights are called. Right from when I named the lights at my old place, I hit on the idea of ‘lights’ for ceiling lights and ‘lamps’ for floor-standing or table lamps, so that was part of the trick.
But I’ve also created some fake ‘rooms’ to make life easier. For example, despite having a combined living-room and dining room, so far as HomeKit is concerned the indirect lighting is in the living-room while the ceiling lights are in the dining room. ‘Switch on the living-room lights’ or ‘switch on the dining-room lights’ makes an easy way to choose the lighting you want.
Similarly, HomeKit thinks that our bedroom wardrobes are separate rooms, so we can easily switch off the Hue Light Strips used in those if we want to do it manually rather than waiting for the motion-sensor to time-out.
iRad smart(ish) heating
Smart(ish) because there’s only a web app rather than a native iPhone app, but we’ll get to that …
Heating was another issue we needed to address in the new apartment. We previously had gas central heating, controlled by Tado. This was great, but our new apartment has electric radiators, which Tado can’t control.
The electric radiators installed in the flat were also rather bulky and inefficient, so we wanted to replace them with smaller, slimmer, more efficient models. I naturally gravitated toward ones offering app control. Nobody seems to do anything HomeKit-compatible, as you can’t use anything designed for central heating, but I found the next best thing.
This is iRad, which uses wireless thermostats as controllers, with built-in receivers on each radiator. (You can also get separate receiver boxes to attach to non-smart radiators.) If you want one temperature and timetable for the entire home, then you can use a single controller. But for us, it made more sense to have one heating zone for the living-room, and separate ones for each of the office and the bedroom – so two extra thermostats.
The radiators themselves are great. Much slimmer than the originals, heat up faster and put out more heat. They should also save a noticeable amount of money in use.
We ordered them in white, and they have a featureless design which really blends in to the white walls. They are just white metal boxes aside from a light-up power switch and a small LED used to indicate heat output, and also used during pairing – of which more in a moment.
To control the heating, you wirelessly pair one or more radiators to a standalone battery-powered thermostat. Each thermostat controls one ‘zone.’ We have ours configured as:
- Living-room (two radiators paired to one thermostat)
- Bedroom (one radiator paired to one thermostat)
- Office (one radiator paired to one thermostat)
That’s because we want different heating times in each zone. The bedroom heats briefly in the morning and evening, the office heats in the day and the living-room heats in the evening.
Set-up is horrible. First, you need to pair each radiator with its thermostat. To do this, you need to put the radiator into pairing mode. Instead of the usual pin-hole microswitch, you switch the radiator off, then on for exactly three seconds, then off, then on again.
Do it for 2.9 seconds or 3.1 seconds and nothing happens. It took about five attempts to get the first radiator into pairing mode. The second one wouldn’t play ball at all, and we had to go through a reset procedure – which again involves timed switching on and off – before trying again. Once done, it then took another three or four goes before it went into pairing mode.
The third one took about a dozen attempts. By the final one, I must have been getting the hang of the timing, as I managed that on take two.
Once you do finally get the radiator into pairing mode, indicated by the LED flashing, you press a button on the back of the thermostat. Thankfully, there’s no crucial timing there: you have a leisurely 30 seconds to do it before the radiator drops out of pairing mode.
Finally, when you have a thermostat and radiator(s) paired, you have to add them to the gateway – a small box much like a Philips Hue or Tado one that connects to power and then by Ethernet cable to your router. This process is even worse. The gateway flashes various light patterns, and you have to cycle through patterns in the web app to find a matching one. You do this multiple times before it accepts that you own the thermostat. (Adding subsequent thermostats doesn’t make you repeat this, thankfully.)
So, yeah, terrible set up. But this is a one-off process. I think the reason for it is that the designer was going for as featureless a look as possible, so didn’t want to add a pin-hole to the casing.
Fortunately, using it is vastly easier than configuring it.
First, you can manually adjust the temperature on the thermostat using up and down buttons. But mostly you’ll want timed control, of course, and this is done via an app.
The marketing materials and packaging both show an iPhone app, so I was a little annoyed to find that this no longer exists. Instead, there’s a web app.
This does feel clunky in comparison, and it’s not exactly pretty on an iPhone screen. But it actually works pretty well. Let’s take another look at that top photo:
The app shows the current temperature of each room (in Celsius, as we’re in the UK), and the target temperature, showing also when the next change is due. In this case, I’m taking the photo on a sunny afternoon when the sun is heating the flat to well above the target temperature, although I’m currently skeptical about the exact temperatures measured.
If you want to over-ride the current setting, you just tap the target temp and a slider appears that allows you to easily set a new target to within half a degree.
Setting those targets is done on an even clunkier-looking screen:
But it’s easier to use than it looks. Tap a segment, and you can quickly set a new start time and target temp. Set things up for Monday, and the hamburger menu icon offers you a Copy Day function that allows you to copy it to the rest of the week. It took just a couple of minutes to configure each room. (Thursday is different as that’s when Steph usually works from home, in the living-room, so we want heat throughout the day.)
The radiators have three modes, indicated by the small LED:
- Off (zone at or above target temperature): green LED
- Low (close to target temperature): yellow LED
- High (heating up to target temperature): red LED
The same off/low/high settings are shown on the paired thermostat.
Really the only thing it lacks compared to the Tado system I had before is presence detection. The system has no way to know whether or not we’re home, so you do have to manually adjust when away.
We’ve noted the electricity readings on day one and will be comparing energy usage with the old units.
The final item on the smart home to-do list was my Nanoleaf light panels. I mostly wanted these in the office, to serve as a bit of background interest in product videos, but thought it would also be fun to have them in the living-room for parties. I hit on the idea of mounting them on a piece of white hardboard, and then hanging them on the wall like a picture-frame.
I’ll report back next time on how well this works, but so far so good. The white board on a white wall doesn’t stand out too much. It does mean I can’t use ducting for the cable, but by keeping this taut it doesn’t look too untidy.
I also fitted the Nanoleaf Rhythm module which the company launched back in September of last year. This is a small device that plugs into any spare slot in one of your Nanoleaf panels, and contains a microphone. This listens to ambient music, and you can then use a Rhythm scene to have the panel react to your music.
As with standard scenes, there are a number of these built into the app, and you can download more.
I love this. It’s the one feature I felt the light panel should have had from the beginning, and I think it adds a lot to the appeal of the product.
We also had a dance tutor here yesterday who was really impressed with it, and is even considering using it as part of his teaching. Watching the way the lights respond to the music could, he thinks, be really helpful in getting those new to dance to really get a feel for how sound can be turned into movement.
Oh, and more lights
I should have predicted this …
I’d originally said that as we mostly use indirect lighting, we were happy to have the overhead lights remain dumb ones. Er, yeah. It got annoying.
So now all the lights are smart bar the bathroom and hall ones, which are 12V bulbs. Those will have to wait for a UK-fitting HomeKit-compatible switches.
We did, though, stick to white bulbs for the overheads, except in the office, where I might want color for product photos and videos.
And we’re not quite done. One of the reasons we wanted to lose the bulky original radiators was to create more room for additional bookshelves (did I mention that we have a lot of books, despite both offloading hundreds of them before the move?). Once those are in, then we’ll add some more Hue Light Strips along the top of them.
But then that really will be it. Honest.
As always, please share details of your own smart home setups in the comments.
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