Smart Home Tool: The IFTTT that Keeps on IFTTTing

The future of home automation, the so-called “smart home”, is so bright, you’re going to have to wear shades—you’re BS shades, that is. If you believe the seriously over-heated hype, the new smart home hubs and home automation systems will save you money, keep you safe, make your life more convenient, improve your love life, grow hair where you want it (and keep it from growing where you don’t), and promote peace and harmony (the noun, not the remote control company) around the world. The enthusiasm is genuinely infectious, and I have to remind myself every now and then that the promised techno-utopia and the eventual techno-reality are often quite disparate. But dreams of a better smart home future give us something to strive for, and that Jetsons-like journey begins with small steps. Buying one of the new smart home hubs and installing a couple of sensors and devices, however, may be a bigger step than you’re ready for. What happens if you’re interested in home automation, but all you’re comfortable with now is sticking your big toe over the starting line?

Well, obviously since I’m writing this blog post about it, there are ways to get a feel for home automation without spending a lot of money; although you have to realize up front that you do get what you pay for, and the automation capabilities won’t be as extensive as having an honest-to-goodness smart home hub in your house. One of those automation-on-the-cheap solutions is a service called IFTTT. IFTTT, which is pronounced like “gift” without the “g”, is an online service that “lets you create powerful connections” between services and sensors and devices using one simple programming statement: “if this then that”. (Now you know where the weird name came from.) While programming a home automation system can certainly get more complicated than that, the “if this then that” structure of programming is the basis for the majority of the things a smart home system will do for you, which is why using the IFTTT service is such a great way to start.

IFTTT calls the “if this then that” statements that you create “Recipes”, the basic building blocks of which are called “Channels”. Channels are crucial to the service because each channel has what are called “Triggers” and “Actions”. In other words, the available Channels allow you to determine what will cause something to happen (a Trigger) along with what that something you want to happen is (an Action). A common recipe I use, for example, takes information from IFTTT’s Weather channel (in this case, tomorrow’s weather forecast) to trigger IFTTT’s SMS channel and send a brief version of the forecast as a text message to my phone every evening. (The individual pieces of data that each Channel within the IFTTT service provides are called, not surprisingly, “Ingredients”.)

The potential power of IFTTT is limited by two things: 1) the number of available Channels, and 2) the number of Ingredients that each Channel provides. Although IFTTT started off with only a small number of Channels, the service has grown to include 113 Channels as of right now, with the most recent being a slew of Channels specifically for Android devices, plus a Channel for the Dash conncected-car app. The number of each Channel’s Ingredients varies quite a bit from Channel to Channel, so some are more useful than others.

Sending a text message of tomorrow’s weather forecast is hardly a home automation thing. But the beauty of IFTTT is that either Channel (Weather or SMS) could be used in a smart home-type Recipe. Of IFTTT’s 113 Channels, 17 of them are directly (or arguably, at least) related to home automation. These include Channels for the Nest Thermostat and Nest Protect smoke/CO2 smart alarm, the Philips Hue lighting system, the SmartThings smart home system, multiple WeMo devices, as well as Channels for a number of Wink devices.

If you have a Philips Hue lighting system, for example, you can create a Recipe using IFTTT’s Weather Channel to trigger an action via the Philips Hue Channel. As with all the various Channels, IFTTT has gobs of Recipes already written that you can use just as they are or make your own modifications. One of the most popular (so far, there have been over 10,000 uses) is called, “If it begins to rain then change the light colors to blue”. Don’t like blue? Change it to green. Worried about the potted plants on your patio when it gets cold? Use IFTTT’s Weather Channel (info is supplied by Yahoo!) to change the color of one of your Hue bulbs to red as a warning if tomorrow’s temperature is forecast to drop below 32 degrees. If you have a Nest Thermostat, you can use the Nest Thermostat Channel to automatically turn of your Philips Hue lights when the Nest is set to Away. 1,300 people have used IFTTT’s iOS Location channel to change the colors of the Hue lights when they (well, their iPhone, anyway) arrive at home in a Recipe called “Make a grand entrance with Philips Hue + IFTTT”. (The Recipe’s original author notes: “When I get home, the lights start turning colors. My kids think I'm magic.”) You can’t say that the possibilities are endless, but it’ll take you a long time to exhaust them all.

So what’s the ticket price to get into this automation playground? Free. Of course, if you want to control Philips Hue lights, you’ll have to pay for a Philips Hue hub and however many lights you want to control. Ditto for the Nest or WeMo or Wink gear. But the IFTTT service itself is free to use for as many Recipes as you can create, so you can dabble in home automation without committing to a particular company’s smart home hub.

IFTTT won’t create world peace, but it will give you a piece of the smart home action. It’s a lot of fun and can be very useful. Check it out. It’s free. What have you got to lose?

utopianemo's picture

I started reading your post, as I always love reading your posts and articles, Darryl. But then I saw that you wrote "you're BS shades" and I got all confused and lost motivation. I'll try again later. :)