John's Musings

Yeah, Me Neither

Home Automation Hardware

So you've decided to automate your home some, huh? But don't know much about it, huh? Seems you go to Walmart or Home Depot or Best Buy and the store areas of smart home components is getting bigger and bigger and everything looks SOOOO cool, but alas, it isn't and it doesn't all play together nicely. There are so many different standards and none seems to have prevailed yet. Here are some of the popular ones.

- ZWave

- Zigbee

- WiFi

- Bluetooth

There are others but lets just start with these. So you decided to take the plunge and buy a smart bulb. Seems the logical place to start. Then you get it home and realize the light bulb that cost you grocery money for the week WON'T WORK WITHOUT A CONTROLLER OR HUB. You look at the box and there it is in small print. Then you find out the hub is expensive and somewhat proprietary to the bulb. Then you buy another device and figure out it needs a hub too!.

But you're lucky. You got a wifi bulb which works from an app. Then you get another wifi device which works from an app. Then you realize the bulb must be in the on position all the time and YOU CAN ONLY CONTROL IT FROM THE APP. You went into the dark bathroom and your phone is in the other room and then you realize you didn't think this out as well as you should have.

So I guess what I'm saying is you need a plan BEFORE you embark on throwing a sea of money at making your home smarter. You need to know the conditions that are acceptable to you before you start buying expensive items.

There are hubs out there that control various protocols. I bought the Wink Hub 2 which seemingly does them all but I found it to have some latency issues. Also you have no control over getting deep inside the component and tweaking it's hidden settings. Wink is for simplification and not for a mythical power user like myself. Also I bought some Osram Lightify light bulbs which are Zigbee protocol and worked with Wink Hub 2. If I turned power out or something it seems I had to reconfigure the bulbs or maybe the distance from the bulb was just too far from the hub. At any rate it wasn't working well in my setup so I decided to get and stick with Z-Wave components. Not a fan of Zigbee and wifi seems so hackable. Nobody is going to run around and hack your Z Wave stuff (I don't think).

So I bought a few items and managed to get them to play nicely around an Open Source project called Home Assistant. Keeps you from using a dozen smart phone apps however the one and only controller I use is a Z-Wave protocol. It is the Aeotec 5th Generation USB stick.

AEOTEC 5th Generation USB Stick

Small, simple, and easy to program. More on that later.

I already touched on my first big home automation discovery.........The app controlled light bulb. When I wake up I just want to switch the lamp next to the bed on, not find the phone, find the app, etc. I very quickly came to the conclusion that wall switches that also work manually are most suited for normal home operation. Well, now I need to make sure my switches are either Z-Wave or Wifi. Were I to get a Zigbee protocol switch I'd need to buy another hub. Been there. Done that.

So I settled for GE Wall Switches 12722

GE Z-Wave Wall Switch

This allows me to use my program Home Assistant or the switch itself. Best thing is these switches can be wired up as three way switches. That is where you have 2 switches controlling one light. Like at the top and bottom of the stairs. BUT, you are tied to using ONLY the GE Add on Switch. The switch works great but I learned that the add on switch doesn't have a Z-Wave controller so that if you push it your Home Automation software won't report the change until it polls the light and sees that it is off. Polling is typically done every 30 seconds on Z-Wave. If you are obsessive compulsive and can't wait a few seconds for the switch state to change in your software the GE Add on switch is not for you. I'm told the HomeSeer line of switches add on switches report state. (Don't hold me to that). Me, personally, I can wait 30 seconds for the slider to slide over. It only bothers you when you're setting this all up or showing it off. In real world applications you turn the light on or off and then don't run to the computer to see what happened. Trust me, this is good enough.

So I have multiple Z-Wave switches in the house and just for fun I bought a Wemo Wifi Switch to put in the guest room.

WeMo Wall Switch

It works great but this switch is NOT a three way switch. Again you have to plan accordingly.

Now there is a place for smart light bulbs...........I use them in lights that I want to control to make it look like someone is home at night or at least awake. You know the light I'm talking about, the decorative one you never actually use in the living room. Or the front porch lamp that you realize you forgot to turn on AFTER you got all comfortable in bed. No more, I say to you. No more.

Not only can you control these lights from Home Assistant, you can automate them to come on at sunset and turn off at sunrise. I've done this with all my outside lights and some inside ones. They come on when the sun goes down and I never have to worry about it again.

So here's my current rough set up. Sensors across the top. Several for my Ring Pro doorbell, and Nest Thermostat. On the top left I have several hacked WiFi outlets I bought at Walmart. These use machine to machine protocol (MQTT) which I haven't discussed yet. These control the lamps in my house that I never actually turn on. Now I can give the dog light when I'm gone or make it look like someone is moving around inside. Also I have some relays which also run via MQTT or aRest platform. Right now these are experiments but I intend to deploy these as garage door openers and maybe yard sprinklers. As you can see I have 4 GE Z Wave switches and the one WeMo wifi switch. The automation set up shows for turning the lights on and off with sunrise and sunset and then also my LIFX lights and GE Z Wave bulb (Walmart $19) is in the garage. I'm going to tie this one into a motion sensor. I'll make it so the motion sensor only works from say 5PM to 7 AM to save a nickel or two a year. Also I can control my NEST thermostat from the Climate Section.

In another cool discovery I found I can add a web links section. Mine is titled LogitechMediaServers and these are links to my music servers.

Here's the media server. i think it's pretty cool I tied it to the Home Assistant program. Also, think about it, you could tie any other web app to this as well.

So I have multiple devices............and I've decided that the truly smart home is somewhat centered around smart wall switches and smart outlets. i prefer Z Wave and I prefer the smaller USB stick controller to the big gigantic hub. Also the Z Wave controller is LOCAL and most of the hubs are CLOUD. Yuck!

Wifi lamps such as LIFX are preferable to me than Phillips Hue which requires a hardware bridge.

For simple VOICE control you can get an Amazon Echo Dot and say "Alexa, Discover Devices". And then you can say "Alexa, Turn on Garage Light" or in the case of my garage light it is a GE dimmer bulb I can also say "Alexa, Turn on Garage Light to 50%". It is ONLY simple control if you keep Alexa local. If you chose to you can create Alexa actions but it is VERY GEEKY and you must open your Home Assistant instance up to the internet. Currently my Home Assistant instance is behind a firewall and is not accessible from the internet. And I know what you're thinking............"What good is that when you're gone?"

My answer to that is that I have a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that I can connect to and then I have full local control. In my mind it makes it a little more secure.

I have a smart lock and I guess I should have gotten a Z wave lock (yep, they make 'em) but I opted for bluetooth. I really like that I can have my phone or a FOB on my keychain and just TOUCH THE LOCK to unlock the door. To me that is better than clicking a slider in a web page or app. So again, every smart appliance needs to be thought out before you buy it. Yeah it would have been cool to control the lock from Home Assistant, but why? if someone is coming over I trust I can email them an encrypted access key. No more hiding keys.

My only regret is that I bought exterior security cams before I got interested in smart home stuff. My cameras, at least now, don't play nicely with this stuff. It's regrettable but hardly the end of the world. I love my camera system and it also was a very well thought out and contrived purchase. It suits my needs perfectly, I just can't view the cameras in the Home Assistant interface. This is NOT that important to me.

I guess the moral to the story is that NO MATTER, no ONE SINGULAR SOFTWARE OR HARDWARE PLATFORM WILL SUIT YOUR ENTIRE NEEDS. For now it is a mishmash of consumer products with no standard set in place.