Two of Google's newer smart home features, are called Home and Away Routines. Rolled out towards the end of 2020, these features have the ability to enhance your smart home's automation by adjusting devices based on whether you and your family are at home or not. It is an expansion on the pre-existing Routines feature of the Google Home app, where smart home devices can be configured to switch on and off at certain times of day.
- How to create Google Routines to automate your smart home
- How to get started with Google Assistant: A complete guide to what the voice assistant can do
Home and Away Routines work best with Google's own Nest products – lowering the thermostat when no one is in, for example, or turning off indoor security cameras when you are home – but can control devices from other companies too, like smart lights and plugs.
Google Home and presence sensing explained
To work out whether you and your family are home or away, Google uses a system called presence sensing. This primarily involves devices that make up the Nest security system, including the Nest Guard, Nest Secure Tag and Nest Protect, as well as the Nest x Yale smart lock.
Presence sensing also works with the proximity sensor of a Nest thermostat, which is normally used to show the temperature when it detects someone is nearby. In this application, the sensor can help inform Google Home about whether anyone is in or not. You can use the Google Home app to pick which Nest devices are used for presence sensing and which are not. It is important to point out that these devices can detect the presence of someone in the home, but do not know who they are.
Strangely, for now at least, Google's Nest Hub smart displays do not function with the presence-sensing system, despite having sensors for recognizing when someone approaches them. We suspect Google could add its Nest Hub and Hub Max smart displays to the presence-sensing element of Home and Away Routines in the future.
Additionally, the Google Home app can use the GPS, cell and Wi-Fi signals of your smartphone to work out your approximate location and whether you are home or not. You need to give the app permission to access locational data in the background for this to work, however.
On privacy, Google states: "The Home app doesn't continually record your phone's exact location like a GPS navigation app for driving. The app only needs to know two things: whether you've left or come back."
How to get started with Google Home and Away Routines
Setting up Google Home and Away Routines for the first timeGearBrain
If you haven't set this up yet, you should still see a blue banner at the top of the Google Home app, inviting you to get started. Tap on this to begin the Home and Away Routines setup process. If the banner is no longer there for you, just tap on the circular Routines button instead, then pick from the Home or Away options on the next page.
After tapping the banner you will be asked if you already own and use a range of Nest smart home devices, including security cameras and thermostats (but not smart displays). The idea here is you can use your existing Nest products to tie devices and routines together.
But don't worry if you don't have any compatible Nest products, because you can say no to this, then create a new Nest network for the Home and Away Routines to run on.
Next, you will be shown which smart home devices can be controlled by the Home and Away Routines. In my case, this includes several Philips Hue smart lights and a TP-Link Kasa smart plug attached to a heater.
By default, both the Home and Away Routines have no impact on any of these devices. To change that, tap on Home Routine, then tap on the device and decide what it should do when someone arrives home. This someone can be just you, or any member of the household who has access to your Google Home system.
Now tap on the Away Routine and decide what your devices should do after everyone has left the home. As we explained earlier, Google Home works out when everyone has left via the presence sensors on various Nest devices, and (optionally) via the location of your phone.
Examples of Google Home and Away Routines
Setting up Goole Home and Away RoutinesGearBrain
I don't have many smart home devices that are compatible with Home and Away Routines, but as an example I could have my Philips Hue lights switch off when everyone leaves the home. That way, if I forget to turn them out, they'll automatically switch off when the house is empty. On the other hand, another light could be configured to switch on only when the house is unoccupied.
I could also set a smart plug connected to a lamp or a heater to switch on when anyone arrives home, or simply for a smart light nearest the front door to illuminate.
There isn't a huge amount of granular control here, and there is a degree of guesswork being done by Google to determine if the home is occupied or not, but with some thought these routines could still be useful for many smart home builders.
If you have a Nest thermostat, you can set an Away Routine to lower the temperature when no one is home. And, while a manually-created schedule (or the thermostat's own intelligence) might serve a similar purpose, the Away Routine will keep that temperature low if the household is unexpectedly away, and not waste energy heating an empty home.
Similarly, a Home Routine can be configured to automatically increase the thermostat temperature when any member of the household arrives home, regardless of what the normal heating schedule looks like.
Nest security cameras can also be configured with Home and Away Routines to, for example, stop recording inside the home when someone returns, then to start again when everyone has left. Another simple use for an Away Routine is to have a smart plug switch off an iron when no one is home, preventing concern over whether you remembered to unplug them before heading out.
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