Interview with SparkFun's Toni Klopfenstein: A Home Automation Guide for Beginners

We asked Toni Klopfenstein from SparkFun about home automation, how to get started and which questions to ask. Read through our home automation guide to get your answers.

 

We’re in it. Full-tilt. Home automation is taking off in ways we couldn’t ever have imagined. Sometimes it whizzes past us so fast we can hardly keep up with the new stuff – let alone the currently existing technology. The names. The brands. The hacking. Where to start can be a daunting prospect. That’s why we interviewed Toni Klopfenstein from SparkFun to get the lowdown on home automation. We wanted to how someone can begin their journey, where they can go to do that and what the possibilities are when they get there. This is our home automation guide for beginners.

Toni Klopfenstein is currently performing quality assurance for the engineering team at SparkFun. She was quickly scooped up by SparkFun in January of 2011 after graduating from the University of Colorado in Applied Mathematics. To say she’s got a thing for numbers could be an understatement. Currently, she’s not only a member of the quality assurance team for SparkFun. She’s also working on her master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering and Applied Statistics.

 

PA:For those who might be new to home automation, what is home automation to you?

TK:To me, the idea of home automation is a way to save time and automate standard repeated practices in the house. It's also a way to enable folks to have more control over their environment and have the home work for them. This could be anything as simple as turning on lights as it gets dark outside, or setting up an automatic plant monitoring and watering system. Alternatively, it could also be as complex as building a pancake-cooking, coffee-brewing robot that prepares a full meal each morning. There are a large number of technologies already available for home automation, and with the proliferation of smart devices, I think this market will continue to expand.

PA: How are smart devices commonly used to create a more valuable home automation experience?

TK: Smart devices enable users to control the systems without having to build a complicated remote system. It also enables users to access the community full of apps already designed for this type of application, shortening the start-up time required to get one of these systems up and running. I believe with most commercial systems, it is a pretty common option now to enable smart device control, as that is the direction the market is moving towards

PA: Do most automation systems have apps available that allow for smart device control?

TK: For DIY options, there are plenty of basic Bluetooth or wireless apps for hooking up Arduinos, Raspberry Pi's and Beagle Bone Black board. So while some development may be required for an extremely custom app, there's still good starting material out there.

PA: What do you see in the potential for home automation?

TK: Working in the DIY and Open Source community, the sheer volume of great ideas that people are coming up with is inspiring to see. Because of that, as far as potential for home automation goes, it honestly just seems that the imagination is the limit.

PA: Can you give us an example of some of the coolest, most innovative ideas you've seen come along lately?

TK: One of the coolest projects I've seen recently was a father who had set up sensors in each room to read when his daughter entered the room. She had a medical condition that affect her breathing, so each time she entered the room, the temperature and humidity levels would automatically adjust to the proper levels to make her breathing most comfortable. This was likely one of the most inspiring home hacks I've seen

PA: Wow.

TK: There's also been a lot of movement towards home-connected aquaponics systems, enabling people to hook into their house's systems to grow their own food. Those projects are really cool simply because it is such a new idea, yet relatively simply in terms of home-grown food options.

PA: There are those individuals who might believe that home automation is a frill reserved for people with a great deal of disposable income. Is this true? What would you say to those who think that they can’t afford home automation?

TK: I think this is a big misconception. For many people, I think the term 'home automation' conjures up mental images of some Star Trek-like house where the doors all pneumatically open or the house responds to your every demand like HAL 3000. Of course, that is totally a possibility that is beyond the typical family-on-a-budget kind of income, but that doesn't mean it's the only option available. If someone is willing to put in the time to design and build automation systems themselves, then it can be done on a budget.

PA: What kinds of home automation can someone install in their home if they are seeking out a more budget-oriented solution?

TK: Again, this totally depends on how much time someone is willing to put into the project. If you are willing to put in the time learning how motor drivers work and how to program a micro-controller, you can then build your own motor-controlled blinds. Want to have the lights turn on automatically when you enter a room? Taking the time to learn how a PIR sensor works and how you can interface this with your light system may take a while, but the sensors themselves are very affordable.

PA: When considering home automation, what are some of the first things a person should consider? What are the questions they should ask themselves about their own needs and wants?

TK:I think the first thing someone needs to consider is what purpose will their home automation will serve. This affects the amount of time and money that will need to be invested into making the automation dream come true. I think the other important question one would need to ask is whether he or she is willing to learn how to do automation themselves, or if they would rather save the time and have someone else do it. It will likely increase the cost, but will take less time. If you are willing to learn it and do it yourself, it will cost less, but will take a lot more time. It basically comes down to which resource is most valuable to you before proceeding.

PA: When a person, new to home automation, starts seeking out different products and brands, it seems like it can be overwhelming. There’s a lot out there – Adruino, Raspberry Pi, X10 – so, can you help us to simplify how to go about finding a system that will do what you need it to do?

TK: For someone first starting out and wanting to hack their own automation system, they will need to first decide what, specifically, they want to do. If they simply want a motor to open and close the blinds depending on the light level, then a simpler system like an Arduino would be a great starting point. It has a huge support community and a lot of example projects and code available for free, enabling someone to get started quickly.

If, instead, someone is relatively new to hardware but wants to have internet access to their automation system, then starting with a Raspberry Pi which is designed on a hardware level to allow this type of hacking immediately is a better starting point.

Starting out with a clearly defined wish list of what they want done is going to be the best first step anyone could take in getting their own automation system set up.

PA: It sounds as though the biggest investment a person will make when it comes to home automation is learning how to wire up and connect their systems. If someone wants to start on their home automation or even take it to a more in-depth level, where can they go?

TK: There are several places to go online to learn how to wire up their own automation systems. SparkFun is a great resource for the materials to get started in a home automation project. There's a bunch of free tutorials available on our site here: https://learn.sparkfun.com./tutorials, ranging from more in-depth applications such as hooking up systems to twitter for wireless monitoring, or something as simple as learning the difference between voltage, current and resistance. There's also a huge community supporting the Open Source movement, so resources like Bildr.org, Arduino.cc, Raspberrypi.org and Instructables.com are all great resources as well for code and instructions on projects. There's also always the option of getting in touch with a local hackerspace and seeing what classes or resources they have available there. Userscan find local hackerspaces at http://hackerspaces.org/wiki.

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