4 Ways to Automate Your Home to Help the Earth

Written by Derek Markham
Updated July 1, 2016
sprinkler in green grass spraying water

Not ready for a whole-house automation system? Reduce energy and water use with these standalone options.

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Home automation and smart home technology might sound like something from the future, or something just for high-end new homes. On the contrary, it's easier than ever before to get started on automating your home. 

It's not necessary to purchase or install a whole-house automation system (although that's certainly an option), as there are plenty of standalone home automation technology solutions that can reduce energy and water consumption, while also making your home more pleasant and convenient.

1. Programmable Smart Thermostat

One of the most popular options in home automation is a smart thermostat, which can save energy and money. While upgrading from a manual thermostat to a programmable one produces big improvements, installing a smart thermostat allows you to take a giant leap. It allows you to schedule the times when you want your home to be as cool (or as warm) as you'd like, in addition to providing a remote control to use with your smartphone or tablet.

One of the biggest names in the smart thermostat world is Nest Learning Thermostat, which was recently brought into the Google fold. The Nest offers capabilities far beyond a standard programmable thermostat. This smart device learns the temperatures you like and then programs itself over the course of about one week.

programmable thermostat on white wall

The Nest includes temperature sensors and occupancy sensors, so it knows when someone's home. This means it can automatically adjust its settings accordingly, without the need to manually adjust it up, down or off. 

It also allows for the homeowner to monitor the current conditions in the home through an app, and to remotely control or program the device, whether you're in the next room or across the world. The Nest retails for about $250, but has been shown to help save an average of 12 percent on heating costs and 15 percent on cooling costs. It can essentially pay for itself in less than two years, while also reducing the home's environmental impact. 

How to get started: Some smart thermostats can be easily installed by the homeowner, but because of the wide range of HVAC systems, there is no one-size-fits-all option. With a little research, and perhaps a quick call to your local HVAC company or electrician, you should be able to narrow down which works best for your particular situation. 

2. Smart Irrigation and Sprinkler Controllers

Some 30 percent of home water use occurs outside the home — watering lawns, landscaping and gardening — so reducing outdoor water consumption helps to save money and conserve resources. Consumers might consider a number of options when it comes to automating irrigation and watering tasks, which range from the programmable in-ground sprinkler systems to plug-and-play sensor and control systems that can be added to just about any hose outlet.

The latest trend in smart irrigation is the integration of moisture sensors or local weather forecasts into the “brain” of the controllers. This system reduces watering times, skips them entirely when it's raining and lengthens watering times during hot weather. 

Most of these new smart watering controllers offer Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity, allowing for remote control and monitoring of the system, along with near-instant alerts in the event of a hose or pipe burst. (Better than finding out hours later after the backyard has turned into a lake, right?) By adding a smart watering controller, homeowners can save 30 percent or more in their outdoor water usage, not only reducing their water bill, but also the amount of water that gets wasted by over watering.

How to get started: If your watering system is as simple as a hose bib and a basic sprinkler, a smart home hub paired with a faucet timer that offers wireless control and scheduling allows you to add some intelligence to your yard. If you already use an irrigation system and controller and you simply want to upgrade it to a smart one, consider the Rachio, the Blossom or the Spruce systems. Ask your local irrigation supply store for recommendations.

3. Occupancy Sensors and LED Lighting

"Please turn off the lights when leaving the room," says every parent to their children. Although it seems like a no-brainer, paying for lights that we're not using (along with the unnecessary energy consumption), makes no sense. It's far better to use an automated lighting solution, in the form of motion or occupancy sensors, which are then tied to efficient LED lighting systems. 

man screwing in light bulb in hanging lamp

An automatic lighting controller, even when not used in conjunction with high-performance and energy-efficient lights, can be a near-effortless way to reduce energy use and provide some peace of mind. By installing occupancy sensors to determine whether lights (and other appliances) are needed, it can save up to 30 percent on lighting electricity consumption, which really adds up over the course of a year.

How to get started: Adding a basic wall switch occupancy sensor to the most frequently visited rooms in your home is a simple and effective way to automate lighting tasks. For larger projects — like adding a central controller and LED lighting throughout the home — give your local electrician a call to better understand the requirements and costs involved.

4. Smart Power Strips

Outlets with things plugged in, but turned off, results in energy vampires or phantom power draws. These home appliances, electronics and personal gadgets consume considerable amounts of electricity even when we're not using them. This electricity keeps devices in standby mode, so that they “wake up” quicker when we want to use them. It's not always apparent when devices draw phantom power, as many times there are no obvious indicators. 

A sure way to prevent energy vampires from wasting energy is to simply unplug them from the outlet. But that also requires plugging them back in when we want to use them, which is not always convenient or easy. 

Install smart power strips, which effectively cut off all power to the devices plugged into them with a single on-off switch, the tap of a smartphone screen or via a scheduling feature. This allows for ease of use and convenience, as all related devices can be shut completely off when not in use. 

Many of these devices also allow you to monitor your electricity consumption through the power strip, which helps identify energy hogs. It's estimated that vampire loads cost homeowners an average of $200 per year in electricity costs, along with the related environmental costs of that wasted electricity.

How to get started: Most electronics and office supply stores sell a variety of smart power strips, and two of the most effective places to install them are the home entertainment center and the home office.

Derek Markham covers green and clean tech topics for TreeHugger.comCleanTechnica.com and NaturalPapa.com. He enjoys tending his organic garden and orchard, learning more about permaculture and homesteading topics and is currently working on a worm composting project.

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