Tech Shortcuts for Life

Use Home Automation to Solve Your Annoying Lamp Problem

How to start simple in your smart home

Photo Illustration: Save As/Medium; Sources: Getty Images, Kasa Smart Plug

Tech Shortcuts for Life is a weekly column from Thomas Smith on Debugger exploring the apps, automations, gadgets, and other tech tricks that can make your life more efficient.

Late last year, I bought a house that was built in the 1980s. This was apparently a time when people enjoyed turning on and off room lamps one at a time. My living room is large, airy, and totally devoid of overhead lighting. It has six electrical outlets, but none of these are wired together or controlled by wall switches. I placed six lamps around the room, and as a result of this unfortunate wiring choice, they all have to be turned on and off independently. For our first few months in the house, any time my family wanted to hang out in the living room, it prompted a ritual that made me feel like a Victorian lamplighter from a Charles Dickens novel.

I’d scurry around the room — which is about the size of my first Bay Area apartment — frantically switching on all six of our lamps in a mad shuffle. By the time I finished, my kids would usually have left the room to do something else. So I’d either repeat the whole process in reverse or figure “Screw it, our energy is green anyway" and leave all the lamps switched on for the rest of the day. If you’re a human person who has ever owned or rented property, I guarantee that you’ve had a similar experience.

Thankfully, home automation technology has advanced to the point where it can easily, cheaply solve humanity’s annoying lamp problems. Too often, people think that home automation systems are super high-end affairs that cost thousands of dollars and are hardwired into a home. The term “home automation” brings to mind blinds that automatically unfurl when you’re ready to watch a movie, speakers that play music in every room of your house, or slick wall-mounted screens that control your lights, air conditioner, and custom slate Jacuzzi.

For our first few months in the house, any time my family wanted to hang out in the living room, it prompted a ritual that made me feel like a Victorian lamplighter from a Charles Dickens novel.

These things do exist. But the best home automation systems don’t rely on high-end tech. They use simple tech shortcuts to solve myriad small, everyday challenges automatically. Think of thermostats that program themselves or smart speakers that let you make a to-do list with your voice. Or, in this case, the solution I ultimately found for my own annoying lamp problem: Kasa smart plugs, which allowed me to network my lamps together, tie them to a single button on my phone, and even control them with my voice, all for under $50.

There are lots of smart plugs on the market right now, including a solid plug from Amazon. But I like Kasa’s plugs because they’re cheap ($29.99 for a pack of four), work over Wi-Fi (eliminating the need for an expensive hub), are easy to install, and don’t lock you into a specific platform (they’re compatible with Alexa, Google Home, and HomeKit, sort of). They’re also made by TP-Link, which is a respected network hardware company. That means they’re likely reasonably secure and well-built.

To solve your own annoying lamp problem, grab a pack of Kasa smart plugs and download the free Kasa app. Press the + sign in the upper right of the app’s home screen, and select add device. Choose smart plug, and select your specific model (I use the Smart Plug Lite). The app will prompt you to plug your smart plug into the wall and to connect your lamp to it. The app will then run you through the process of connecting your plug to your home’s Wi-Fi network and testing it.

When everything is done, you’ll be prompted to name your plug and select an icon for it. Choose a descriptive name that you’re likely to remember in the future, and that’s easy to say out loud — the name will appear in the Kasa app, but also in voice-enabled platforms you connect to it, like Alexa or Google Assistant (more on that below). Repeat the same process until all your lamps are connected to smart plugs.

Author’s lamps in the Kasa app

Now the automation fun begins! Go back to the home screen of the Kasa app, and press the + again. This time, select group to create a new group. Select all your plugs to add them to the group. Select “save" and give your group a descriptive name (I called mine “Living room lamps"). Now when you open the Kasa app, you’ll see a single button for your group. Press it, and all your lamps will switch on at once. Press it again, and they’ll all switch back off.

Controlling all your lamps with one button is already a big time saver. Because Kasa smart plugs use your home’s Wi-Fi, you can switch them on or off from anywhere in the house or anywhere in the world. If you’re coming home late at night, it’s nice to turn the lights on from the car before you head inside.

Once you have your lamps connected, there are lots of ways to expand your setup.

For voice control, connect your Kasa app to Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or Samsung SmartThings. All your lamps will now be available to control via your voice assistant. Say something like “Alexa, turn off (lamp name),” and your lamp will switch right off. I love this integration. We have a massive, imposingly art deco, antique Stiffel lamp in our foyer that weighs 30 pounds and is approximately as bright as a small lighthouse. It’s a lot of fun to wield its massive illuminating power by shouting “Alexa, switch Stiffel on!” and suddenly bathing the whole entryway in light.

You can also set your lamps to turn on and off automatically either through the Kasa app or an external platform (I use Alexa’s Routines). I configured mine to switch off automatically at 10 p.m. to automate my nightly routine of switching off the lights before bedtime. With Alexa, you can even configure your lamps to turn on at sundown, using a routine that automatically updates with the seasonally-adjusted sunset time for your area.

For even more fine-grained control, connect your Kasa app to a service like IFTTT, which lets you initiate actions in your home based on a wide variety of triggers. With IFTTT, you can turn your lamps on when you leave your home, when your doorbell rings, or even when your favorite Twitch channel goes live.

Ultimately, that’s the beauty of building a home automation system — you can start with something simple and keep adding more advanced devices and functions. Once you’ve built a basic system to wire together some lamps, you might find yourself wanting to add a Kasa smart switch, so you can automate those wall sconces in your hallway, too. Maybe you’ll want to throw in some Hue smart bulbs to add custom light color to the mix, or a Kasa motion-detecting camera, so your lamps can switch on as soon as you enter the house.

Today’s home automation systems are highly modular. You can easily get started by spending a few bucks to control a lamp or two, and then scale your system up over time as you see new needs around your house — or when you see a smart device available for a steal on Amazon or Newegg. Pretty soon, you might find yourself like me, automating everything from your microwave to your washing machine, so all the devices in your home communicate and work seamlessly together.

Or you might want to easily control a few lamps and then call it a day. Either way, home automation has become so inexpensive and so easy to implement that there’s minimal risk in trying a home automation system out. So grab a few Kasa smart plugs, spend an hour learning to use them, and give yourself the gift of never doing the Mad Lamp Shuffle again. Who knows — you might end up with that Twitch-connected smart lamp before you know it.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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