How can a Smart Home help those with disabilities?
One of the great features of an integrated smart home is the fact that it can provide some level of independence to those of us with disabilities. In this article we will explore some of the smart home products out there that may help bring back control to your life at home.
The first thing most think about in a smart home is smart lighting, including fans and small appliances. This is probably the most important smart home feature for a person facing the challenge of living with a disability. Not only can you control your lighting with a smart phone, remote control, or voice assistant, without the need to reach for a light switch; lights, fans and appliances can also be automated to fit your routine. For example, having your bedroom light slowly brighten in the morning is a great alarm clock replacement for those of us that wake up before the sun rises. You can also add colored bulbs to your smart lighting to notify you with a certain color when someone is at the front door or when it is time to take medications. Smart lighting devices can also be combined into scenes, which is great when you want to light up an entire area or room in your house that contains multiple light switches.
There are several ways to implement a smart lighting solution in an existing home. The best way is to replace the original switches/dimmers with smart switches/dimmers. Many DIY solutions on the market today simply require replacement of the light bulb. While these devices are easy to install, the “smarts” of the lighting are all in the bulb, and if the switch that provides power to the bulb is off the bulb will remain off. Therefore, if you would like to still have traditional control of your lighting as well, it is usually best to have the smart control of the bulb from the switch. You can always add a smart bulb to act in tandem with a smart switch to provide color control as well. To add smart control to your electrical outlets, there are two options: plug-in modules and smart receptacles. Plug-in modules are installed on your existing outlets, while smart receptacles replace them. These provide smart control for lamps and other devices, and work by controlling the power that flows from the outlet; great for doing things like turning on a heating blanket well before bedtime when the temperature outside falls below a certain threshold (no more climbing into a cold bed at night!).
Speaking of heating, one of the best devices for making your smart home feel more comfortable is the smart thermostat. These days almost any new air conditioner install is going to have a thermostat with simple scheduling of the cool and heat set points, based on day of the week and time of day (usually 4 times each day: sleep, wake, away, and home). More advanced thermostats will have a companion smart phone app that will allow the user to change not only the temperature set points, but also change the mode of fan operation, as well as the system mode (off, cool, heat, emergency heat). Taking this one step further thermostats like the Echobee can interface with your smart home hub, allowing for some interesting automations such as changing the temperature set points when you’re away or turning on your ceiling fans at the same time as your air conditioner to better circulate the air in your home. These thermostats can also learn your schedule to better control your home’s temperature with little intervention from the user. Interfacing with a smart home hub will provide the added benefit of having your thermostat on the same dashboard as all your other smart home devices, so you don’t need to go to multiple apps to control them. This is a great feature for those of us who have trouble reaching their thermostat to make their home a more comfortable temperature. You can even link the thermostat to a digital voice assistant, such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home, and literally not have to lift a finger to change your home’s temperature.
That brings us to our next device; digital voice assistants have recently become more and more prevalent in homes, and can help with things like scheduling, getting the news/weather, and ordering things online. Not to mention these can also make controlling the devices in your smart home feel effortless. Some of us, however, aren’t comfortable having a device like that in their homes that is always listening for a wake word, and that’s ok; there are plenty of other ways to interact with your smart home (smart phones, tablets, or remote controls for example). For those that are, a digital voice assistant can really help people with disabilities interact with their smart homes. It does require some initial setup to get the assistant properly interacting with your smart home; however, afterwards it is as simple as telling the assistant what you want to happen, and it will do all the work for you. There is a bit of a learning curve as well; these devices are still in a relatively early development stage, and don’t always respond to commands or hear correctly. Once you have the chance to get used to your digital assistant’s idiosyncrasies, you’ll find that it starts to blend into the background of your smart home. In fact, you may find yourself saying “Computer, turn off the bedroom lights.” in a hotel room when you are away for a few days.
The ultimate solution for those with mobility issues would be a mobile robot assistant, not just one that responds to your voice; one that could do the dishes, cook dinner, and wash and fold the laundry. Well, we’re not quite there yet, but there is one robot that can help with a chore most of us would rather avoid: robot vacuums. These have been around for a while now but have really improved over the past few years. I personally use a Neato robot vacuum at my home, and highly recommend it. The newer models can even be controlled from a smart phone, or even interface with a smart home hub: Imagine vacuuming your house while you’re not even home. The model I have actually learns the layout of your home and will provide a map of all the areas it covers which helps identify areas the vacuum has trouble reaching. The map can also be used to set virtual boundaries to control where your robot will vacuum. Usually, it is best to run them at night since they tend to get in the way of their human counterparts and can be a bit annoying with the noise they produce (though it is no where near as loud as a traditional vacuum). Again, these can take some getting used to and require some initial setup; things like tasseled carpets are an easy trap for a robot vacuum. Once the obstacles are removed and the device is properly configured, it will usually run without issue. The only thing left to do is empty the dirt bin and occasionally replace the filters and rollers. A word of caution though, if you have pets that tend to have accidents in the home, beware; the robot does not know what it is driving over and can really make a mess if it rolls over your pet’s droppings. So, it is usually a good idea to have them caged-up or outside when the vacuum is running. The good news is that the hair and dirt that comes with having pets will be reduced significantly.
There are myriad other smart home capabilities that can make life easier for people with disabilities: blinds that open and close with the rise and setting of the sun; garage doors that notify you when open for a certain period of time, and that can be opened/closed remotely as well; door locks that can be locked/unlocked with a simple press of a button on your smart phone; sensors that can detect leaking water, and even automatically close a smart shut-off valve to prevent catastrophic flooding; scenes and automations that make your devices act based on a single command or event (e.g. dimming all the lights, closing the blinds, lowering the air conditioner, and turning on the TV and stereo when it’s movie time). The number of devices and features a smart home can provide may surprise you. It could even help one live a relatively independent life at home, rather than needing extra assistance from a loved one or professional caretaker. Ion Technologies specializes in customizing smart homes to fit the needs of their resident(s), including those with disabilities. If you are in the Jacksonville area and interested in turning your house into a smart home, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call: (904) 894-1562.