My House Needs Modes

By Deane Barker on May 5, 2007

I’ve been reading a great blog called No Impact Man. It’s about a guy, his wife, and their toddler daughter who live in downtown New York. They’re trying to live for a year without casuing any impact to the environment.

This means: no electricity, no garbage, no packaged products, no driving, no flying, etc. It’s pretty extreme.

I enjoy the blog and I respect what the guy is trying to do. It’s not for everyone, but it’s an interesting expirement.

Colin, the guy, recently wrote a piece for the New York Times about what he’s doing. He said something in this piece that has totally stuck with me.

[we] feel entitled to heat our empty homes all day…

That has really hit me hard: I heat an empty house all day. This has really started to bother me. I mean, we could turn the thermostat down if we wanted, but we don’t. Additionally, there are other things in my house that are burning energy that need to be regulated other than just the thermostat.

Because of this, I’ve decided that my house needs “modes.” This correlates with the fact that there are different modes of activity in my house. At any given time, myself, my wife, and my three kids could be:

  • All at home, all over the house
  • Asleep in our bedrooms
  • All in the basement for several hours every night
  • Out of the house at school and work, but due back later
  • Out of town for days at one of my son’s soccer tournaments

Each of these modes requires different heating, lighting, and water requirements. I want a quick way to put my house in a mode, and have the mechanics of my house react accordingly.

Example —

A couple of days a week, both my wife and I are out of house. I work, and Annie teaches preschool. I’d love it if, on the way out the door, my wife could press an “At Work” button. This would turn the thermostat down to 50 degrees and shut off all the lights in the house (more on this later) and selected outlets (the TV, the radio in the bathoom, etc.).

When Annie comes home, she could press the “Active” button which raises the thermostat (she can turn on lights as she needs them).

Later that night, after dinner, and after we all head down to the basement, we put the house in “Basement” mode. This localizes heat to the basement, and shuts off all the lights and selected outlets on the upper two levels of the house.

When we got to bed, we press the “Asleep” mode, which lowers the heat to 65 degrees, and shuts off all the lights and selected outlets.

The next day, when we leave for a soccer tournament, the put the house in “Out of Town” mode, which lowers the thermostat to 45 degrees, shuts off everything in the house, and turns off the water heaters.

(Now, I know that there is such a thing as timed thermostats, but we can’t make this work for us. Annie teaches part time so there’s no set schedule that we can wrap a timer around.)

If you think about it, there’s a lot of things you could wrap up into modes. For instance, “At Work,” “Asleep,” and “Out of Town” should probably turn the burglar alarm on. When you’re home, perhaps the answering machine picks up on four rings instead of two (and a big neon sign above your house says, “Come rob us, we’re not home…”).

Another idea: be able to change modes via your cell phone. So when you leave the office, you can switch the house to “Active” mode remotely so that it’s toasty warm when you get there (wussie).

So, that’s the idea. All you home automation junkies: how close is the do-it-yourself technology to this ideal? Could I make this happen now, if I wanted?

Now, a little more about light switches…

The light switch is a fundamentally broken device. It has two modes, and you have physically present at the device to change the mode. This is stupid.

Don Norman, in his book “The Design of Everyday Things” solved this problem for his research lab. They had a central console that would allow them to turn lights on and off around the lab, or turn them all off at once.

While my house modes idea is neat, I would settle for something even more realistic: the ability to turn the lights off in my house en masse. On the way out the door every morning, or before I go to bed, all I want to do is press a button that says, “Shut off all the friggin’ lights in the house.”

Is that too much to ask?



  1. I have been thinking about home automation as well. Recently changed most of the lightbulbs to the 13V incandescents, one or 2 of the 26 volt for where more light is wanted.
    I shut all the lights off, sit down to watch tv in the living room, want a drink, turn on the hall light, the dining room light, the kitchen light, etc. Get a drink and a snack and my hands are full. Get back to the living room and all the lights are on. I want something that will turn the lights off from the living room or later from my bedroom. I have even thought about putting in a few motion sensor lights in addtion to the regular lights for those forays to the kitchen or the bathroom in the middle of the night (beats night lights which while low wattage are constantly on).

    And then there is the temperature control. We leave and come home at very unpredictable times so a timer is out. My wife would scream to come home to a chilly house so it would be nice to be able to call the heater and tell it we are on the way home and make the place nice and comfy.

    I have been looking at for some of the things I have mentioned here.

    Now if I can just get the outside security lights from coming on all night long for no apparent reason I would be a happy camper.


  2. Two things:

    • As far as home automation goes, isn’t that what the X10 standard is for? “X10 is an international and open industry standard for communication among devices used for home automation and domotics.” from Granted, who wants to mess with x10 after the whole pop-under ad thing from several years ago, but it’s what you want to use.
    • Second, while I applaud the basic premise of different modes to reduce your eco footprint, doesn’t the very act of trying to pursue home automation run a little counter to that effort? I mean, what you’ll really be doing is continuing the capitalistic (sp?) cycle of demand, production and consumption. In an effort to reduce your eco footprint (in this case electricity), you would end up spending a fair amount of money for some home automation solution that would probably require significantly more resources to manufacture, package, ship, shop for, install and then finally use, than it would for you to just make a conscious effort to turn off the lights and turn down the thermostat when you are leaving.

    Don’t get me wrong. Unfortunately with three kids, our footprint is definitely very heavy and we are not in a position to lecture/judge other’s efforts. However, I do think it is worth pointing out/asking out loud. I have similar questions about the overall efficiency (from manufacturing, packaging and disposal) of CFL bulbs. Kind of like how it turns out that some hybrids are actually less fuel efficient than their counterparts. Hey look, is that a black helicopter?

    Regards, Matt

  3. There are a handful of companies I know in town that can hook you up for home automation (lighting, etc.) Let me know if you want names. Don’t kid yourself though, the HAL effect is for you, not the environment.

    You kind of waved off the timed thermostat, but I think you’d be surprised what they can do. Settings can be manually triggered as well.

    If you’re feeling carbon heavy, get your appliances checked – washer/dryer/water heater – that’s typically where the most energy is wasted at home. Get your cfl’s plugged in. Get your terrapasses. Plant a tree.

    Do the same at your office.

  4. I’d love to have the same stuff in my house. What would be great is to have a house that reacts to what you do in it, and be somewhat intelligent about it. Things like knowing whether a room is occupied or not & turning lights on or off or adjusting their intensity as needed, adjusting room temps as needed depending on room occupancy and typical usage patterns, etc… Sure, all of it’s possible using the Jimmy Carter method, but I guess it depends on the primary motivation for doing it.

    Reading through your post, it appears that convenience is the primary goal, with saving energy a fringe benefit. Personally, I think the whole “carbon footprint” thing is total BS, but I am all for using technology to save time and money on energy costs. The problem is that getting all of this done can be costly, so it’s hard to justify the expense. If I were building a new house it’d be a no-brainer, but retrofitting an old house like I live in would be pretty tough, and expensive.

  5. “On the way out the door every morning, or before I go to bed, all I want to do is press a button that says, ?Shut off all the friggin? lights in the house.?”

    I’ve got something like that, and it’s been pretty nice. The rules are: opening the front door between 18:00 and 23:59 (if there’s been no motion sensor activity inside the house to suggest that we were going -out-) will turn on several lights to a medium level. Playing the notes G-C on a midi keyboard will turn them all off and put the computer screens to suspend mode. There are many other interfaces to the lights, but the two I just mentioned get used every day. The midi keyboard could just be a button, but the keyboard happens to be in a better location so we use that.

    My stuff is mostly handmade wired controls, so it’s probably not the version that people want to duplicate. I have some old notes at

  6. I’m astonished that you don’t have a timed thermostat installed by default. I’m pretty certain it is a legal requirement here in the UK.

    We have a 7 day timed thermostat, so weekdays start and finish earlier than weekends. With a single button override (once for today, twice for tomorrow) if we spend a day at home during the week (it sets the Sunday timings) and another button for days away – one press per day – it is simple to adjust.

    I read about the USA using such vast amounts of energy, and can’t understand how. Then I find stuff like this (or I discover that most americans – even in sunny, dry, windy places with gardens – dry their laundry with tumble dryers) and it starts to add up.

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