There was a time when smart homes seemed like some far off dream, but thanks to the rapid developments in technology, they have become a reality. Today technologies powered by mobile gadgets and computing devices have become a lot more affordable, such that almost any average home can use some form of home automation.
Imagine having a system that opens your door or the gate as you approach, instantly creates mood lighting for any occasion, lights your path for night-time bathroom trips and programmes your television so that your children can watch it only at particular times. What about being able to see what is going on in your house when you are away?
Luckily, home automation is no longer a far-fetched dream, with companies doing all sorts of home automation already in the county.
To make your home smart, you have to make a few modifications and get a few installations done, says Mr Mukira Gitonga, CEO and co-founder of home automation company Chimera IOT (Internet of Things). To begin with, you might have to replace your incandescent and fluorescent bulbs with light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, and also have a number of sensors and closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras installed at strategic points around the house.
For a more advanced system, you might have to replace your windows, doors, gate and blinds with electric ones. In addition, you might have to modify the power outlets and switches, although Mr Gitonga says some systems are compatible with most power sockets and switches.
Finally, you have to have an application installed in your phone or tablet to enable you to control the different operations.
So, what are some features of home automation?
Mr Gitonga and Mr Richard Maina, a technician with Chimera, IOT listed some of the areas in which automation comes in handy.
Security is one of the most important issues to any person and you can enhance it in your house by installing CCTV cameras, which enable you to monitor what is going on at home via your phone.
Mr Mukira says CCTV cameras come in two types: fixed point, which monitor only one direction, and a 360° rotating camera. The latter can be rotated using the phone app to monitor what is happening in and around the house in real time.
In addition, the security system helps you detect intruders and forestall burglary through motion detectors. “Upon detecting an intruder, the system sends a message to the homeowner and switches on the security lights. If you have subscribed to a security service provider, the system notifies them through a text message. The motion detectors are rechargeable and can last 36 hours. You can install one on the perimeter wall and few will notice it since it is not connected using cables,” says Mr Mukira.
The system also enables you to lock and unlock doors and windows remotely. For instance, you can monitor the gate using the CCTV and open it for a visitor using a smart phone. And if you have a househelp, you can have a tablet is mounted on the wall to help her/him control the operations.
However, to enjoy these features, you have to have electric gates, doors and windows pre-installed and then automated.
With a smart home, you do not have to worry about rain entering your house because you forgot to open or close the windows or doors. “There are sensors that detect humidity, temperature, particulate matter — the amount of impurities in the air — and luminosity (amount of light). If they detect dust particles in the air, they send a signal to the system to close the windows or the blinds,” says the CEO.
And when it starts raining, the system receives a signal from the humidity sensor commanding it to close the blinds, as well as all the windows and doors. And depending on the amount of light, the luminosity sensor can command the system to light up the house.
However, if you happen to press the away-mode button on the mobile app while leaving the house, the system will only close the blinds and shut any open windows or doors, but it won’t switch on the interior lights. Pressing the away-mode button on the mobile app shuts down all electrical appliances, apart from the refrigerator and specifically selected equipment. It also automatically starts the security system, via which sensors and cameras monitor the house to detect intruders.
Meanwhile, the temperature sensors tell the system to draw the curtains, turn on the air conditioner or start the thermostat, depending on the temperature in the house. “The possibilities are endless,” says Mr Gitonga.
HOME UTILITY SYSTEM
Cases of houses being burnt down because the fire engines arrived too late are common. But with the fire detection and prevention utility, the fire brigade is informed in good time. The system comes with carbon monoxide, methane gas, and smoke detectors, which automatically shut off the cooking gas supply if they detect something amiss.
The system is particularly handy if you use a charcoal stove. In case of excess carbon monoxide in the air, it not only alerts you, but notifies a pre-subscribed emergency medical service to ensure you get immediate help in case of gas poisoning.
Further, security systems can be built to provide help in an emergency. For instance, not only will the system start a fire alarm, unlock doors and dial the fire department, but it will also light your path to safety.
“It basically requires you to have floor lights installed and automated. In the event of a fire, these lights guide you to safety. The minute the motion detectors sense that you are out of the building, the lights automatically go off,” says Mr Maina.
The utility system can also be used for watering the lawn or garden. For instance, you can activate sprinklers from a smart phone to water the garden. But with the help of the humidity sensors, this task can be automated so that the watering is done based on the surrounding humidity condition. A robotic lawn mower can also be connected to the system.
For a start, the lighting system enables you to turn the lights on and off using your mobile phone. But with a fully automated system, the luminosity sensor initiates the process of switching off the lights and opening the blinds in the morning. In the evening, the curtains will be drawn and the security lights switched on.
If you have dimmable bulbs, Mr Maina says, you can control the intensity of the light to avert visual impairments caused by prolonged exposure to bright lights.
Besides, the system provides for mood lighting. For instance you can activate a movie scene whereby the system will dim the lights and start the popcorn machine.
Other modes available include meeting mode, date mode and dinner mode, which switches off extra lighting in the room and leaves only the desired one at the dinner table.
Mr Gitonga says that as far as home automation is concerned, any gadget that can be plugged into a power source is automatable. This goes for electronics such as the home theatre and TV.
“You use your phone as a remote control. You don’t need any flash disks or CDs since music is stored and played from a cloud storage system. It also allows you to transfer music from the car stereo to the home theatre, such that when you get into the house, the song you were listening to will continue playing,” says Mukira,
With the smart home software, you can control what your children watch on TV by changing channels remotely via the Internet. In addition, to prevent children from watching TV when they are supposed to be doing their homework, for instance, the software allows you to switch off the TV and hover over them with the CCTV cameras to monitor what they are doing.
“It’s about how creative you can get with the software. You can even programme the TV in such a way that it comes on automatically during the watershed period,” offers Mukira.
Can people living with poor or no Internet connection benefit from this technology?
“Our system can work on connectivity as low as Edge Internet. Apart from streaming videos from the CCTV cameras and controlling them, which requires 3G Internet, all other operations are possible with any other Internet connection,” says Mr Maina, adding that they install powerful modems for customers who are not connected to cable Internet.
What is it like waking up in a fully automated home?
“If you want to wake up at 6.30am, you can set music or radio on the alarm clock to wake you up. In the meantime, the curtains, air conditioners and kitchen appliances “wake up” with you. The water will start warming 15 minutes before you wake up, and if it takes you five minutes to take a bath, then the toast maker and coffee maker will start preparing breakfast for you say, 10 minutes after the shower to allow you time to dress up. It’s like having a partner in the house doing some tasks for you,” explains Mr Maina.
“Our main objectives are to solve the security puzzle for you, maintain safety in kitchen, and ensure energy efficiency and time saving. It is estimated that more than 40 per cent of electricity generated in the country is wasted in ways that can be avoided. For example, when someone leaves their TV on and no one is watching, it consumes electricity for no reason. We want to free up your time so that you can do the most crucial tasks and leave the repetitive tasks to the system,” says Mr Mukira.
What are the charges for having your home fully automated?
“A home starter package that comes with a TV, DVD and radio control capabilities plus three smart lights goes for Sh49, 000,” says Mr Mukira. He adds that the package is suitable for tenants who would like to try out home automation in their apartments. “The package is enough to automate most services in a one-bedroom house and it comes with free technical support,” he adds.
“Although the price depends on the number of light bulbs and appliances you have in the house, with Sh100, 000 it is possible to automate a three-bedroom house,” says Gitonga.
Doesn’t he look rather young to do this? “That is one of the hugest challenge I face. I have lost a number of deals because people doubt my ability based on my age. However, when I step into someone’s door with my team of technicians and install the system, the client looks at me in awe and disbelief as if to say they don’t believe I just did that.”
He chuckles as he hands out a certificate awarded to him by NASA in appreciations for his efforts to address these challenges.
“We designed a system using the same principle (home automation) that can remotely control space robots. It earned us recognition by NASA in a tech-challenge dubbed International Space Apps Challenge in April 2015. Before that we had been doing product development but the experience we gained and the recognition reaffirmed the need to bring automation services closer to people. We registered the company soon after,” says Mr Gitonga, who was listed among the top 25 under 25 innovators and entrepreneurs of 2015 in Kenya.
Chimera IOT has so far installed the system in more 76 households, besides hotels and clubs in Nairobi. The company is looking to launch its services in Tanzania as it seeks to spread its wings in East Africa.