After two years of moving, renting, and setting up a new home, I’m getting back into a mostly organized smart home that isn’t simply a hodgepodge of devices I’m testing at the moment. I mean, we’re in a pandemic, so what else am I going to do? But during this time, my tween grew into a teen, who is stuck at home all the time while also trying to establish some sort of independence from my husband and me. So I wanted to see where smarts could help.
For years my daughter has had a first-generation Amazon Echo in her room tied to a family Spotify account. We used to use it to drop in on her from our downstairs Echo to call her to dinner or whatnot. But she hated it. The noise was startling, and the fact that we could just listen in on her aggravated her.
In our new home, her room is downstairs from the main living area, and the house is pretty soundproof, so calling her to dinner involves running downstairs or screaming loudly in the home so she can hear us over her ever-present headphones.
So we switched things up a bit and decided to rely on lights instead of Alexa or shouting. I installed a Lutron dimmer switch (which requires a Lutron bridge) for her overhead lights and reconnected her Hue bulb in her desk lamp.
I labeled all of this as “Bear Bedroom” in the Alexa and Google Assistant apps (this option also works with HomeKit). From there, I could use a Google display to pull down the lights and two taps to get to the Bear Bedroom and turn the lights on and off.
One challenge I have is that none of my smart home devices have the option to toggle the lights, so if they are on, and I turn them on, nothing happens. This means I have to turn them on, then off, then on again to ensure something changes in her room.
It’s a small matter, but if I want to trigger a command using voice, it’s a pain. And because 90% of the time we’re trying to call her down to dinner while finishing up cooking, it’s kind of a pain because we have to wipe our hands before hitting the display. There is a workaround for this in Apple’s HomeKit.
So I looked for a push-button solution. For about $25 I could buy a Philips Hue smart button that would turn the smart bulb on her desk off or on (it’s a true toggle so it would simply turn it on if the light were off, and off it were on). But I worried that with a smart bulb, the likelihood of her turning off the light at the switch would “break” my light-based messaging system. This was kind of a shame because I had a lot of ideas about being able to use colors to convey different things.
I also looked at the Flic buttons which could tie both Lutron and Hue together, but it required an IFTTT recipe (this would give me a toggle option though). As a paying user, I can write my own IFTTT applets, but free users only get three applets, which might aggravate people. I also didn’t want to deal with the Flic buttons which need my phone or a hub to work. It was an expensive solution when you consider Flic buttons are $29.99 and can also require a hub (a starter kit with 3 buttons and a hub costs $189.96) if your phone is out of Bluetooth range. Additionally, if you don’t pay for the IFTTT subscription, your latency on the toggle might be a problem.
After researching solutions, I realized there was a really simple $20 option — a Lutron Pico remote. I simply purchased the remote and programmed it to also control my daughter’s overhead lights.
Now, when I want to call her up for dinner, I can simply punch the on button and then turn it off, effectively flashing her overhead lights. Shortly after the button press, I hear her door open and I know her headphones are off, which means she’s on her way upstairs. If I’m fast I can shout down if I need her to bring up something, or I can just let her pop on ready for whatever crazy thing her parents might require.
It’s working really well, although a good toggle option in the Google or Amazon voice assistants would have made this search for a physical button unnecessary. Maybe they can get on that.
Also, as another note, I would remind y’all that there are a lot of options available for people who want to set up something similar using Home Assistant, different light switches, SmartThings, or even different smart bulbs. I just wanted to lay out the thinking and options available with this configuration, and to get people thinking about light as a way to offer a slightly less intrusive intercom option.
Also, this is a bad solution if you worry about waking up your teen if they are taking a nap or sleeping in.