It’s looking like 2020 is going to be the year of the Smart Home, with Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home going head to head. As we start to integrate these devices into our home lives, we naturally start looking to how we can integrate them into our motorhoming lives and it’s not nearly as hard as you may think.
‘Smart’ devices have in fact been around for a long while, I had light switches that could be controlled via a smartphone app long before any voice control came around. However, by adding a ‘voice hub’ it then allows you to control multiple groups or families of devices via a simple verbal command. This means that you will have likely been able to complete that action, such as turning a light on, long before you would have been able to locate, never mind get as far as to unlock your phone. Bringing together multiple manufacturers devices from a single point really increases their usability and viability in a home or motorhome setting. There really is no right or wrong way to achieve this and the following is merely my perspective and experience of experimenting with some of the options.
I’ll leave to one side the concerns that smart phone devices are ‘listening’ to us as they undoubtedly are doing, however unless you are working as an undercover Russian agent there shouldn’t be any reason to be concerned. Every search you make online, every supermarket you visit is tracking you by identifiable information from the hardware or payment methods you use. As for Smart devices, they are always listening locally for their ‘wake’ command, such as ‘Alexa’ or ‘Hey Google’, but whatever you say thereafter is usually interrogated via the internet to make sense of what it is you just asked and to give the right response.
To get started you need two things, the first is to decide into which camp you want to be in – are you a Google Home or are you an Amazon Alexa? I’m no great fan of either companies, I purchased an Amazon Alexa ‘Dot’ when they first came out in 2014. and couldn’t wait to purchase a Google Home when they arrived 2 years later. Sadly, despite using Google for everything on a day to day basis, Alexa really does seem to have the edge when it comes to ease of use and compatibility and so gets my recommendation. I’m afraid Siri and Cortana, Apple and Microsoft’s attempts, don’t get much of a look in here due to the lack of device choices.
While third parties can have access to ‘Google Voice’ or ‘Alexa’ each company manufacture their own lightweight DC powered unit with an integral speaker, known as a ‘Dot’ for Amazon and a ‘Mini’ for Google. This will allow you to give voice commands and hear a response and listen to audio, the speakers are also surprisingly good for background music or news.
For the Alexa, you will need either a Dot 2 which is 5v USB powered or if using the Dot 3 which is 12v powered it is best to get a USB to 12v adapter (available on Amazon) as this is smaller than an equivalent 12v DC-DC regulator and costs about £8. For the Google Mini, the current version is 5v USB powered. Power consumption for a dot seems to be about 0.4A/hr @12v in standby and various inexpensive wall mounts can be purchased.
The second is you need some form of WiFi router in your van as a central point or internet connection to connect all of your devices to. Ideally, this wouldn’t be the hotspot on your phone if you intend to add devices such as controls for lights, which we’ll come onto in a minute. The other consideration is how many devices you are going to be using.
Great, so now you have an internet connection and something in the van that’s listening to you (makes a change) – what can you do with it?
From my camper van in Portugal, I am able to issue voice commands to the Alexa dot to control smart devices back at home such as the heating, internal and outside lighting, lock or unlock the front door, ‘drop in’ to rooms at home where there is an Alexa device. However, perhaps more interestingly, I can control things in the van too. I am able to turn lights on and off either individually or as a group, set the brightness or set a scene – a combination of certain lights, brightness and even music.
By setting scenes, you could say in the middle of the night ‘Alexa, turn the lights on’ and all of the lights turn on, or ‘Alexa panic’ to sound a external siren, or ‘Alexa, I’m in the mood’ and the lights dim or turn to red, Martin Gaye starts playing and you get a sharp clip round the ear hole – although one of these actions was not controlled by Alexa.
Without disappearing too deep down the rabbit hole, it’s also possible to automate a lot of actions too using a third party service called IFTTT (If this, then that). For example, to set the lights to come on at sunset rather than a pre-programmed time or to alert you when certain events occur using compatible sensors.
Voice automation aside, another smart home feature which has become very inexpensive is CCTV for which I can highly recommend YiHome cameras. For as little as £20 these 1080p indoor cameras complete with night vision and two way audio are USB powered and allow you to watch or receive motion alerts for upto 10 seconds sent to your phone. Optionally you can install an SD card for upto 30 second clips or pay a subscription to get motion events stored in the cloud. Again, 5v USB powered so perfect for motorhome use. If you want to ‘check in’ on your motorhome for security or because you’re leaving a pet – this is a great way to do it.
You do need to consider power consumption and while each ‘smart’ device has a minimal power draw, collectively due to their ‘always on and always waiting’ nature they will consume power in order to issue the command.
Some motorhome manufacturers are already starting to consider and integrate Smart features into their motorhomes. It can be a lot of fun to see what you can achieve with minimal outlay and the suggestions given are really just the tip of the iceberg.