I’m now well over a year into my use of HomeKit as the primary ecosystem for my smart home, and while I don’t regret the transition, I still occasionally use and test devices for other platforms. These last 16 months have taught me quite a bit about how to best use HomeKit, so I want to share some best practices to help you automate your HomeKit home.
Know your requirements
Before you get started, there are some basic requirements you need to consider. Obviously, you’ll need an iOS device to run the Apple Home app just to use HomeKit. And you must have at least one HomeKit hub in your home in order to use automations.
Today, that hub can be either an Apple HomePod speaker, a 3rd-gen or later AppleTV, or an Apple iPad with iOS 9 or higher. Apple recently announced that it was dropping support for iPads to be HomeKit hubs, so if you need to buy a hub, skip the iPad.
The reason you need a hub for HomeKit automations is because HomeKit runs locally, and a hub is needed to process those local automations. In that light, I can see why Apple is dropping support for iPads to be HomeKit hubs. These are mobile devices, so they can come and go in the home; if someone takes the only hub with them when leaving, HomeKit’s effectiveness diminishes.
Note that your investment in a HomeKit hub won’t just enable automations. You’ll also gain remote access to all of your devices to see what’s going on in your home and/or to control HomeKit products when you’re away from it.
Organize before automating
Although I’m specifically focusing on HomeKit, this part really applies to any smart home ecosystem. I’ve found that for a user-friendly smart home experience, it’s extremely important to properly name the rooms in your home as well as your connected devices. While you can create automations with a jumble of room or device names that make sense to you, intuitive or consistent naming will help everyone who uses those devices.
In our home, for example, we have two main rooms on the first floor, plus a dining room and a kitchen. Most people would name the two main rooms “Living Room” and “Family Room,” respectively. But my wife and daughter weren’t sure which name to use for the room where they spend the most time, to which they typically gravitate and watch television. (I spend more time in the other main room, mainly for reading, coding, and writing.)
So we literally had a discussion about what to name each of these two rooms. I suggested “Living Room” for where they spend their time, but they noted that it’s the only room where all of us sit together on occasion. Well, other than the kitchen, that is. So as a group we decided on “Family Room.” And although my wife and daughter joke that I basically live in the other main first-floor room, “Living Room” didn’t make sense for that space. So we agreed to call it the “Study.” And with this group effort, we all know which room is which in HomeKit-land.
But that was the easy part. The naming of each device added to HomeKit is just as important.
Here again, we went with descriptive names that everyone agrees on. Lights nearest the TV are called “TV Lights,” for example. The salt lamp in my study is called “Salt Lamp” to differentiate it from a reading lamp. This might sound like overkill, but when setting up an automation, I find that precise device naming is extremely helpful.
Explore your automation options
Now we can finally get to the fun part! Right off the bat, whenever you add a new HomeKit device, Apple offers some simple automation suggestions for it.
These are in the context of the device. If you add a webcam or video doorbell, the automation suggestions will be different than if you added a bulb or sensor, for example. So if the idea of HomeKit automation intimidates you, start with the suggestions. You don’t have to keep them enabled; just try them to see how the system works.
From there you can either edit existing automations or create your own. And here’s where HomeKit has grown up quite a bit over the last few years.
Many would say that HomeKit automations are too limited because Apple sets the rules for how and what can be automated. Two or three years ago, I would have agreed. These days? Nope, although there are more powerful automation systems on the market such as Home Assistant.
However, the amount of native automation options available in HomeKit have increased by leaps and bounds. And they’ll continue to increase when Matter arrives later this year; you’ll be able to control and use non-HomeKit devices in your smart home, even for some automation purposes.
Thanks to the improvements in HomeKit, and devices that support it, I’m finding more ways to automate connected devices in my home.
For example, the latest Ecobee Smart Thermostat Premium has two new sensors, humidity and presence detection, that are exposed to HomeKit. When I realized that, I decided to create an automation using that new sensor data to turn on the ceiling fan in my study if the humidity is above a certain level. That wasn’t something I could do until now.
I also didn’t know that the Logitech Circle View Doorbell had a light sensor in it until after I installed it. Sure enough, that sensor appeared as a HomeKit sensor automatically, which is how I found out it existed. Indeed, when I tested the Eve Motion blinds recently, it gave me an automation-related idea. Now, if the light sensor detects brightness over a certain lux level, the blinds automatically drop down.
You may, and probably will, know specific automations you want to enable in HomeKit. My point here is to not limit yourself to just creating those automations. Think outside of the box, and dig around the various options that appear when setting up your automation. Doing so has helped me add some useful and interesting smarts to my home that I had never even thought of before.
I’m sure I’m not the only one that has some best practices when it comes to HomeKit automations. What have you learned over time that you’d suggest to other HomeKit users?
JD Roberts says
Very good article, I think you hit most of the big points for HomeKit. (There’s another technical best practices topic for mesh networks that have repeaters, but we can set that aside for now.)
We’ve now had home automation for 8 years and HomeKit for 6 at our house and I would say that the one topline change we’ve made in our whole concept of best practices is this:
MAKE THE HOME AUTOMATION WORK FOR THE HUMANS, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.
The story about choosing room names is a perfect example of this.
Our household consists of 3 adult housemates, each with our own friends, family, and service people visiting.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, there’s one small room in the house that we all naturally call by a different name. One says “office,” one says “den,” one says “study.” We all understand each other, but we use different names.
It didn’t matter how many discussions we had or even if we put up an OFFICE sign on the door: our natural inclinations remained the same.
Siri doesn’t cope well with this, unfortunately. But Amazon’s Alexa allows you to put the same smart home device into as many different groups as you want. Voila—problem solved. We created 3 groups, one called “office,” one called “study,” and one called “den.” And put the same smart home devices, the ones from that room, into each of the 3 groups. Now each human can say whatever is natural for them to say, and Alexa understands it.
We do the same thing for individual devices. AC is in a group called Air Conditioner and a group called Air Conditioning. “Red table lamp” is in a group called “Side table.” We make the home automation system work for the humans, not the other way around.
Since we figured this out about 5 years ago we only buy devices that need voice control if they work with both HomeKit and Alexa.
Granted, this approach is more work for whoever does the tech support for the system. But it’s just way easier to live with on a daily basis for a household like ours.
Choice is good. If your household prefers everything kept sleek and simple under the hood, and you can get the humans to adapt to the system, go for it. But for our household, reducing friction for the people using the system every day is what works best.
Some other examples: we use smart switch covers to create wall switches exactly where visitors will expect wall switches, even in rooms with motion sensors and voice control. We add third party apps when they give us a feature missing from our primary app rather than learning complex workarounds. We don’t mind adding a device that requires its own hub/bridge even when it makes setup more complicated as long as it’s reliable and valuable in day to day use. We spend more for features like being able to individually set the “Behaviour after a power outage” for smart bulbs, so that the humans have minimal annoyance if an outage does occur. If one kind of sensor creates too many false alerts, we add a second and create a zone, or switch to a different technology altogether.
All of this is part of creating a home environment in which home automation is always making things work more smoothly, not making the humans force themselves to remember exactly how to serve the system’s needs.
Absolutely, if this was a one person household we’d do things a lot differently. But it isn’t. So we accept the technical version of clutter and a mix of all kinds of things from all kinds of companies in order to get a system that works smoothly and easily for everyone who comes through the doors.
So I guess one of the things I would say is that “best practices“ for us might be different than “best practices” for someone else. People have different needs, priorities, aesthetics, and budgets. One of the great things about DIY Home Automation in 2022 is the degree of customization it allows, and that applies to design practices as well.