Home automation – first steps

Living alone with a debilitating disease like MND brings with it a whole range of problems that are not experienced to the same degree when there is always someone else around to lend a hand. Of course even in these cases a person is likely to want to preserve as much independence and dignity as possible. Now that I have homecare I at least have a couple of opportunities each day to ask for help from one of my carers. But for most of the day I am by myself and as my body gradually fails I will have an increasing need for some kind of assistive technology if I am to be able to interact with the house environment at even a basic level.

Fortunately, Marion, my Adult Services Occupational Therapist has been keeping on top of things and looking much further ahead than I’ve been. She’s recognised for some time now that I would need an environmental control system, a sort of home automation hub that could hook up to various appliances throughout the house and to be able to control them from a centralised location with minimal physical effort. I did have an assessment for one of these not long after I left work last year but at the time the consultant in rehabilitation medicine felt that it was a bit premature and that I still had a fair bit of mobility. However, by late October when I had my second assessment my (upper limb) physical abilities had deteriorated sufficiently to convince her that there was now becoming a need. So after being shown various systems we settled on the Possum Primo!

Specification sheet for Possum Primo environmental control system

Shortly before Christmas my OT (Occupational Therapist) and a representative from Possum paid me a visit to discuss my initial needs which were to have a door entry and intercom system installed. This would allow me to determine who was at the front door and to remotely open it – from either the living room or from my upstairs study. They’d also come to assess the work required so that a quote could be sent to the council (the cost of the work was being met from the Adult Services budget). I was told that it would take about eight weeks to get the budget approval so I figured that allowing for Christmas I would probably not see anything installed until March. I was therefore rather surprised when I was contacted in late January to say that I was being fast tracked and that an electrician from Liftech (Possum were too expensive on their bid for the door openers) would be calling the following day to install the spur extensions and 13amp sockets that would be required to power the front door and hallway doors.

So the next day the electrician called round and within three hours had all the sockets and cables in place in the hallway and near the exit from the living room. A day later the fitter from Liftech arrived and spent the whole day with me working through until 7pm installing the motors, door opening arms, control box, the various switches in the hallway and living room, and the proximity sensor mounted on the outside of the house. I’d chosen to have the door opening switches mounted at the same height as when my arms are hanging naturally by my side, that way it would require little effort to operate them. In fact I could even ‘bump’ up against the wall if necessary.

Door opener on interior living room door

For me to get into the house now requires the use of a special proximity watch which looks quite normal when worn around the wrist. But when the watch face is pressed up against the proximity sensor on the wall it activates the door opener. The door will fully open for a preset time before closing by itself again. The doors can be kept open by leaving the interior switches depressed – ideal when bringing shopping in for example. Although the door is now effectively a keyless design I can still open it by using the original key and in fact I always take it with me as a backup – just in case the technology fails. Unfortunately the watch is fitted with a buckle strap as opposed to a bracelet clamp so I need the help of one of my carers to put it on and take it off.

An engineer from Possum and a technician from Adult Services turned up the next day to install the intercom systems, which required some cabling through the hallway, living room, stairway and study. I now have the ability to use a few pre-recorded voice responses or to speak into the intercom myself which is an almost hands free design and can therefore sit on a table. You only need to touch the membrane keys twice; once to start speaking and once to open the door. Having this system in place will prove particularly useful for the time I spend at my desktop PC in the study as I can no longer run quickly down the stairs to answer the door.

Intercom and Environmental Control System

The main piece of kit to be installed was the Possum Primo! environmental control system. This device with its touch sensitive screen has the ability to not only capture the infra-red codes of various remote controlled devices such as TVs, DVD players, Sky boxes etc. but can also be wired into other systems which in my case meant the doors and intercoms. Using the touch screen when mounted on its stand would be quite an effort for my arms; in fact I’d need to support one arm with the other and couldn’t do it for log anyway. So to make life easier for me Possum have supplied a switch connected by cable to the Primo! that can be triggered using a hand or foot. I’ve got it resting on the arm of the sofa. Pressing it once activates the Primo! Pressing it a second time causes the display to go into scan mode and cycle through the options available e.g. activate intercom greeting/speak, open front door etc. So to some degree I have some duplication of functions but over time the Primo! will come into its own as various tasks are assigned to it. The first of these was to plug the TV into an infra-red activated wall socket adaptor so that I can switch the TV on via the Primo! rather than swinging my arm high so that it lands on the top of the flat screen where the controls are.

I’d had electricians and fitters in over the course of three days and been pleased with everything they’d done. It all looked neat and tidy although I must say that I now have a hallway that’s starting to resemble an electricity sub-station with all the boxes and cables mounted at ceiling height, their status lights glowing brightly and a low hum constantly emanating from everything. But it’s done and is already making life easier.

Hallway electrics and front door opener

And already Marion and I are looking at the next step which will be to fit electrically operated curtain pullers and these too will be controlled via the environmental control system.

By the time I’m finished I’ll have a home so automated that it will be like the secret lair of one of James Bond’s arch enemies :-).

I am indebted do my friend, Robin Taylor, who kindly took the photos I needed to illustrate this article. I just did all the post processing. Thank you, Robin.

Mark

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