back to article The Hardware Hacker's Guide to Home Automation

Reg Hardware Gizmo Week logo small The home of the future is a staple of both speculative fiction and comedy. Back in the 1970s, Frank Spencer caused havoc in an automated home during an episode of Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em. For some of us, the enduring image of home automation is either Michael Crawford chaos, worthy but …


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  1. Martin Huizing
    Thumb Up

    Frank Spencer

    Ooh, I loved that TV show. Can't remember if I watched re-runs from a Dutch or English provider but it had me in stitches.

    Same entertainment level as Dad's Army and On the buses. Classic gold!

    1. This Side Up
      Thumb Up

      Re: Frank Spencer

      "For some of us, the enduring image of home automation is either Michael Crawford chaos, "

      For some reason I think of Jaques Tati's "Mon Oncle".

  2. Alex Walsh

    You really love that NEST controller don't you? It's in almost every round up you do.

    1. Anonymous Cowbard


      And yet it's horribly (un)supported in Europe...

      1. Richard 81

        Re: Nest

        El Reg ought to make a bigger deal about this. Looks like it's strictly US only.

        1. Anonymous Cowbard
          Thumb Up

          Re: Nest


          I have no real problem with a company not wanting or being able to support its products outside their home country, it's an expensive job, especially for a small organisation.

          But when that product is hyped by all and sundry without mentioning the drawbacks that is a problem as people will buy it and end up with a door stop.

    2. Nigel Whitfield.

      As far as I can recall, this is the first time I've mentioned NEST; it may well have been mentioned by other writers on El Reg, but that's coincidence rather than any editorial intent.

  3. Rob Quinn

    Does no one remember project Jarvis?

  4. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

    Am I alone in remembering Red Box...

    a company formed by Hermann Hauser in 1985. I know it's since disappeared, but it marketed a through-the-mains control module solution.

    I can find almost no references to this in Google, Wikipedia etc. It's amazing how something used to be able to disappear almost without trace before the Internet.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Am I alone in remembering Red Box...

      No you're not alone... I remember the adverts in Sinclair User :)

  5. Pete 2 Silver badge

    C4's "Home of the future"

    Channel 4 did a series about this a month or two ago. After spending a quarter of a million quid (so they say) on kitting out a house, the overriding impression was that a lot of the gadgets weren't very good.

    Yes, you can control the heating when you're out - but really: who cares (you're OUT) and you could probably watch live video of your house being burgled if you had the desire - but still couldn't do a dam' thing to stop it.

    What the programme couldn't do was make the technology disappear - it still needed people to actuate and control it. All the programmes managed to do was to show off a few point-solutions to some rather unrealistic situations. The best example being the (hopelessly cliched) Roomba (other home vacuums are just as bad). Sure, it could go across an unobstructed and level floor and move the dirt around, but as a home vacuum cleaner it was and always will be a failure. How can it clean the stair carpet? What about the dust behind the TV cabinet? What chance of reaching the cobwebs on the ceiling? What about emptying it's own bag - not a chance.

    And the same story played out for almost all the gadgets that feature in home automation / HotF articles. Eventually a person needs to step in and complete the job, or fill in for the gaps in the gizmo's abilities. What that means is not only do yo buy a gadget to do half a job, but you still need all the paraphernalia to do the work yourself.

    Since houses are designed for people and built to a human scale, until and unless the gadgets take a similar or more adaptable form, we'll still be a slave to the technology: having to move the furniture so the little robot can get behind it to clean. FAIL.

    1. myhandle

      Re: C4's "Home of the future"

      If your house is being burgled and you are aware of it (or even better, aware of it just before it actually happens) then you *can* in principle do something about it, set off alarms lots of flashing lights etc before they have broken in. If you are lucky they might give up before they start. If you want something really effective, then you can trigger a bandit fog generator so the burglar has a hard time seeing what he is wanting to steal. Of course, if your detection system only provides alerting but no response you are right.

      1. LB45

        Re: C4's "Home of the future"

        Of course you could just activate the 'electric grid' floor while being burgled.

        Not a clue officer, looks like he had a heart attack and just died on the spot. Pity.

      2. Kristoff

        Re: C4's "Home of the future"

        Avg home robbery is over in less than 10 mins I believe. So perhaps if you're online you could watch them nick your property and turn some lights on!!

        Monitored alarms and decent locks are what is needed. Not turning lights or sirens manually on

    2. Nigel Whitfield.

      Re: C4's "Home of the future"

      If you've read my reviews of the Roomba here, you'll know that when it comes to things like dust behind cabinets, I really don't care... if I can't see it, it's not really dirty.

      Similarly for cobwebs on the ceiling; though I must admit to mild embarrassment when a gentleman caller got them caught in his mohawk as he entered my boudoir. Rather than a robot, of course, the better solution is to invite tall people with big hair to visit more often.

    3. Dave 126 Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: C4's "Home of the future"

      "you could probably watch live video of your house being burgled if you had the desire - but still couldn't do a dam' thing to stop it."

      You say that, but:

      This almost makes you want to loudly talk about your address and expensive jewellery collection in a crowded seedy boozer, just to attract some victims to your house!

  6. Bassey

    Slowly creeping in

    I started reading this thinking "Oh god, another Tomorrow's World special on things that will never happen".

    Then I realised, we already have a signal-man that uses an accoustic sensor to monitor the level of oil in the tank and calls the oil company for a re-fill if it gets too low. I didn't even pay for that - the oil company supplied and fitted.

    And, when we got our new oil-fired boiler three years ago they threw in a wireless controller. So the heating is fully programmed and, for example, I can stick it in the youngest's room overnight (which tends to be the coldest) and it will ensure the room never drops below 16C.

    I also have a £15 all-in-one remote which, from a single button press, will turn on the TV and blu-ray and switch the TV onto HDMI-1 (amongst other things).

    And, whilst not automated yet, we get our shopping delivered each week by Tesco. I can use my Android phone, during the week, to take a snap of the barcode of anything I've emptied (cereal boxes etc) and they just get added to the list. On a Monday night I then log in to the current order where it tells me what I ordered last week, what I usually order and if there are any specials on things I've ordered in the past. It takes about 10 minutes to complete the list and it gets delivered Tuesday night. I can see that process becoming more and more automated over the next few years.

    Home automation isn't just coming. It is here. But it is here in ways that we tend not to notice - which is surely the whole point.

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      Re: Slowly creeping in

      I would tend to agree; and I'd add that while whole house systems using a single protocol still seem a it expensive and frankly unnecessary to many people, as more gadgets become IP-enabled, those of us of a more technical bent will be able to find ways to link them together with our own scripts, in the ways that we want. And as a result, we'll probably have something that's more personalised, and more useful.

      1. myhandle

        Re: Slowly creeping in

        The hydra control freak has a very flexible event processing engine that handles both input and output http events as well as hardware I/O events and events from home automation pirs. In this way it goes a long way to providing the flexibility you will likely want as a geek. It's also self contained and doesn't rely on any provider's website in order to access it from the outside.

        1. Kristoff

          Re: Slowly creeping in

          Far too pricey and complex!! There are many cheaper and easier to use solutions out there. Problem still remains the human element to keep an eye on things 24/7

    2. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Slowly creeping in

      Indeed. Wireless chips cost pennies to put into things these days... it will become more a case of tying them all together through software. Securely. Reliably. Hmmm, it might take some time!

  7. ElNumbre


    Anyone remember Android@Home?

    Oh wait, that's still possibly a developing technology. Maybe.

    I revisit HA every 12 months or so, but even in the 'web connected' era, solutions are still hideously 1980s, hideously expensive, entirely incompatible with British standards or all three. If someone could build a system that was easy to install and maintain and cost <£20 a socket, Id be there.

    As it is, the solutions seem 'generally' reserved for wealthy Americans.

    1. myhandle

      Re: Remember,,,

      Homeeasy plugs currently cost < 12 pounds a plug in the UK. And there's a system in the Netherlands called Klikaanklikuit which effectively cost about 5 euros a plug. Maplins sell a unit in the uk that is 5 pounds a plug but I'm not sure what protocol it runs, it might possibly be proprietory. It's not listed as supported by the rfxcom device in any case.

      The Hydra Control Freak device is easy to install and maintain but does require you to add a port forward if you want to access it from outside your home from your smart phone for example. The all the rest is just adding actions to events that you buttons send all via a web interface.

      1. ElNumbre
        Thumb Up

        Re: Remember,,,

        That control freak product does not match my specific 'value' test. £299 on ukhomeautomation for what is basically a Sheeva plug with the software preinstalled. AND you still have to buy the X10 computer kit to connect to it.

        However, the rfxcom devices look clever and deserve some further research.

        1. myhandle

          Re: Remember,,,

          It does a bunch more than just home automation. That's the difference. It handles home security requirements as well, capturing video streams from IP cameras and sending SMSes that contain links to video streams as well as encoding them to WebM. It can be used for serious security uses. And it talks to Phidgets as well.

        2. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Why Not?

      Re: Remember,,,

      Try HAH.

      Currently based on a Orange livebox. But it may diversify to Raspberry PI (according to the developer).

      Livebox < £30 an evening following the wiki and you have it flashed.

      Needs external TX £42 / £55 built.

      Simple assembly, I predict a pre built raspberry pi one but its not my project (just a user).

      Home easy sockets £20 for 3.

      so hits £20 / socket at 6.5 sockets. Then future sockets at <£7. (supports 96).

      Can also do HE/BBSB/KlikunKlik Light controllers etc

      lots of other bits & pieces can be added cheaply, has currentcost & jeenode integration for instance.

      Nice flash based interface.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "Nice flash based interface."

        Is that statement intended ironically, or is it missing something?

        1. Why Not?

          Re: "Nice flash based interface."

          Flash limitations aside it works quite well.

          Pre HTML5 a client & server agnostic interactive web interface only has a few options.

          The way it works allows config by an XML and embedded images without programming tools.

          Look for XAP flash. Try for yourself.

    3. Kristoff

      Re: Remember,,,

      Agree 100%. The system price needs to be kept under £100 for the whole lot. There are some commercial solutions mentioned here that are extremely expensive once you've purchased all the hardware.

  8. myhandle


    Hydra Control Freak ( are working on providing support for a similar device from rfxcom ( that would also add support for a wide range of devices including homeeay, lightwaverf etc.

    1. myhandle

      Re: rfxcom

      The rfxcom device definately does support European devices.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    *still* not there

    Stirling Moss's house was great...

    <quote> I revisit HA every 12 months or so, but even in the 'web connected' era, solutions are still hideously 1980s, hideously expensive, entirely incompatible with British standards or all three. If someone could build a system that was easy to install and maintain and cost <£20 a socket, Id be there.</quote>

    This. The wireless thermostat/7 day heating controller I fitted c8 years ago works really well as someone else has pointed out. That goes on 'nighttime' setting when we're away which keeps the house above 7C. The water controller has a 'holiday' setting where you can tell it you'll be away for X days and it doesn't heat water until the day you're back.

    Some form of smarter lighting would be cool but fitting ultra efficient bulbs (LED's are finally getting there for home use and *should* avoid the short life that seems the bane of CFs) will save more money that reducing on time of normal bulbs and once you've done that the repayment period for the investment on auto off becomes huge. Our switches are all over the place and it's rare that we leave things on. An 'all off' command would be good for last thing at night, or when going out, but a lot of expense just for that. Movement sensor lights are troublesome - any office I've ever been in that's had them has not coped well when the office got quiet and people were all sat at their desks - do you really want to have to wave your arms about every 10 minutes when watching TV?

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      Re: *still* not there

      Or worse - movement sensor lights in toilets. I've stayed in hotels with those, and it can be quite alarming.

      That said, I do have them in my flat, because I live on the lower-ground floor, and the internal corridor is lit only by what light comes from any open doors. I'd probably end up leaving the lights on all the time otherwise. But other than situation such as that, I agree that internal motion/activity sensors (including TVs that turn off if you've not use the remote control for four hours) often don't quite get the balance between usefulness and inconvenience right.

      1. B33k34

        Re: *still* not there

        So speaking of auto off on TV's I have a relatively simple HA problem that I've still not solved satisfactorily. My sub-woofer sits behind the TV on the opposite side of the room from my Amp (HDMI cable and speaker cables run under the floor). The sub doesn't have any sort of auto on built in. I've got a Harmony remote. Ideally I'd just have an IR socket on the sub but they don't seem to exist any longer - they're all RF - so what would be a *cost effective* solution to switch the sub on when the amp is running?

        I currently have the sub on an E-On 'desktop power down' linked to the TV with a manual override switch for when I listen to audio. However, even that's not ideal as the power consumption on the plasma tv drops sufficiently on scenes with very low light (or titles) to switch it off with an annoying click. Tried a TV power down (which have an IR thing) but couldn't get that to work.

        There must be a better way....

        1. Gotno iShit Wantno iShit

          Re: *still* not there

          I have exactly the same problem. Best I've come up with is a Marmitek AWM2P to send a signal when the amp powers up and any one of a number of simpler X10 blocks to switch the sub. Great. That'll be £100 for the blocks and another £60 for the computer interface to use just once to program them up. Then there's the time that I simply don't have to learn to use the system and wire in the blocks.

          Given the number of very effective switchers out there how can £160 and a load of grief be the best available option to simply to slave the power of device B off device A?

        2. Ogi

          Re: *still* not there

          I had the same problem, but mine was rather trivial to solve, my Rotel pre-amp had a "remote out" which would put 5V out when I turn it on with the remote. I just ran a wire to a relay along the same route as the sub-woofer cables. Now when I turn on the preamp with the remote, it turns on the power amps and the sub-woofer.

          Check if your AMP has a remote out equivalent, so far most Audio equipment I've owned has had it in some form or another (Rotel, Marantz, Technics and Sony). There is a tendency to have them with incompatible connectors/pins and voltages (to prevent you mixing separates I guess), but a bit of Googling you can find out the specs, and in some cases schematics for interfacing between them.

          1. B33k34

            Re: *still* not there

            My current Sony amp doesn't have a remote out :-(

            1. Ogi

              Re: *still* not there

              Does it have an "AC outlet" something like this (to the right):


              My one had an "AC out", but it was a proprietary connector (some odd cross between US and Euro sockets, I presume you needed a "Sony adapter" cable to do it properly).

              It was a solid state relay rated at 110V (US I presume). You cannot feed your 220V stuff directly, but you can stick 12V down one pin, and it will activate the relay (and complete the circuit), so you can drive another 240V relay if you want.

              I had all sorts of Sony AV equipment, and the AC thing was very much a home theater feature (so you could turn on all your gear with one remote). I'd be very surprised if they actually removed this from new models....

              What model do you have?

              1. B33k34

                Re: *still* not there

                I can't see that image you've linked to - link seems truncated.

                The Amp is a Sony 2400 ES. Back panel image here - and no power outlet either. I had an old 70's Sony system for a while that had an outlet on the back. Really useful.

                1. Ogi

                  Re: *still* not there

                  Ah sorry about that, I had a look at the rear of the 2400 ES from your link, and you're in luck! You have both a rs232 and a sirius control port.

                  Now the rs232 will depend on the encoding Sony use, but if they raise any pins high you should be able to get +10V when the Amp turns on. Easiest to test each pin with a multimeter with the amp on, find one that has a signal, turn off the amp and see if it drops. If it does, then you're good to go! :)

                  If you're not using the "Sirius" control port (mini-din on the top left), that could be perfect. The SiriusConnect port has a pin it raises high when the amp is on (known as the "Power enable" pin). It is so that you can turn on/off the Sirius receiver with the amp.

                  According to the pinouts I found here: (sorry, I can't use, etc... as I'm at work, and they are blocked) pin 2 is the "Power enable" pin.

                  If you feel you're competent enough with electronics, give it a try. It is probably easier than guessing with the rs232 port.

                  So actually, modern Sony HT equipment has more options than my old stuff, lucky you! :) I can see a few other ports to try, but that is going into proper hacking territory. Better to try the above low hanging fruit first. Good luck! :)

        3. Phil Endecott

          Re: *still* not there

          > what would be a *cost effective* solution to switch the sub

          > on when the amp is running?

          So the connection from the amp is a "line level" audio signal, right? I'd be tempted to bodge a little circuit to detect when a signal is present, and turn on a relay. Your challenges are (a) not to interfere with the audio quality, and (b) power. Neither is insurmountable.

        4. Gordon 10

          @bk33k34 Re: *still* not there

          Quick google came up with Lindy IR socket. Plug that into the Sub psu (I assume it's an active sub) and either set it up as a new device on the harmony or Learn it to an unused key when the harmony is in Amp mode.

          In my experience the harmonies have the IR power to bounce into odd corners so it should work. Biggest pain with the newer logitech harmonies is that the device limit is too low.

          Hope this helps.

          1. B33k34

            Re: @bk33k34 *still* not there

            Thanks, but no cigar.

            I bought one of those Lindy sockets (not lindy branded but identical) and it doesn't work as you expect - its another 'standby saver'. Because the consumption of the sub is variable it incorrectly thinks its in 'standby' and switches it off.

            The only straight IR socket I could find in the UK was this one - Targeted at healthcare providers the last time i saw a quote for one it was £195.00 +Vat

  10. Dave 126 Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Thumbs up for the reference to that classic Coldcut track:

  11. gaz 7

    Open Energymonitor

    A shout out to should be given here as it's a DIY open source energy monitor based on Arduino, and very cool. Built one up myself a short while ago.

    I also have a tellstick, and it works great (nice to see a mention - almost invisible over here) and a load of remote sockets I bought at 3 for a fiver at Asda. also got a bunch of 1-wire sensors around the place, and some cheap PIR sensors on order to try and put some room sensors together. All my stuff runs on a £50 pogoplug with a webserver.

    The big problem is that a lot of the mainstream commercial stuff has no external controlability - the new stat we bought with a boiler from a certain large gas firm has no network control, neither did anything else the sales guy offered - surely not that much to build it in now.

  12. Steve Button Silver badge


    I'm thinking about getting a raspberry pi to control my immersion heater by grabbing the solar energy being generated (over bluetooth) and only switching the thing on when I'm generating over 2 Kw (for instance). For non UK people, this makes sense because I can use whatever I generate FOR FREE... as they pay me for half of what's generated regardless. Anyone out there know how I'd get a raspberry pi to control an immersion heater? Some kind of relay attached to the USB?

    Or can anyone think of a better way?


    1. James Hughes 1

      Good Grief

      I was talking to someone about 20 minutes ago about this EXACT same thing (I mean EXACTLY the same - PV on roof, wanted to dump 'excess' power to immersion heater). Small world.

      Raspberry Pi + SPI interface board + opto isolators , which I was talking to someone about about 10 minutes ago!

    2. Dave Stevenson

      Re: Question?

      I'm looking at doing almost the same thing but via hardware rather than RPi. OEM can monitor the power being generated by the PV, and that being consumed by the rest of the house, and (with a little extra code) turn on the immersion heater if there is sufficient surplus.

      RPi will need some interfacing to be able to monitor power (unless your inverter already has Bluetooth or similar for remote monitoring). It does have onboard GPIO so that it could drive a relay directly (no USB interface required), although a Gertboard (search the RPi blog) may make life easier.

      As a further trick, drive your immersion heater via a high powered dimmer circuit (triac), and you can make use of all the surplus power from your PV, even if it doesn't exceed the threshold to turn your immersion on at full power. Read the OEM forums for various discussions on that.

      1. JRS

        Re: Question?

        I've looked into this but haven't jumped at anything yet. The closest things I've seen have been either on openenergymonitor (looked too complicated for me) or I found a thread on a forum: (jumping into the middle of it!) in which some people seemed to be offering to sell a semi-ready-built system for a reasonable price.

  13. Joe Carter

    HomeEasy controller via Arduino

    You can control HomeEasy kit via an arduino via a 433Mhz transceiver available from Maplin for a tenner:

  14. John A Blackley

    Who's it for?

    If I'm a para or quadriplegic then I can see the value of home automation. Otherwise it's just yet another excuse to avoid getting off my fat, lazy backside to turn a light on or off.

    1. Bassey

      Re: Who's it for?

      Assuming you were being serious and not just trolling;

      How am I supposed to measure the contents of a fully sealed oil tank by "getting off my fat arse"?

      How am I supposed to stop my son's bedroom dropping below 16C by "getting off my fat arse"? Do I get up every 30 mins during the night, take a temperature reading and either turn the heating on or off?

      Or, for the example someone gave above of dumping excess solar energy into the immearsion, should he remain at home all day to do this or do you advise running home every few minutes to switch the relay manually?


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