John's Musings

Yeah, Me Neither

Home Automation - The Struggle is Real

Decided to make some upgrades to my oh, so perfect home automation system and alas, this is when you find the struggle is real. Everyone that comes here is impressed with the setup but there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes. Home automation is not quite ready for the casual user.

But alas, it is. Go in any department store and they sell home automation hubs, which connect to all these devices and, yeah, it kind of works but you don't have tons of control over the user interface and you can't get under the hood to fix problems that pop up, and oh brother do they pop up. And while home automation is getting wildly popular, it isn't well thought out in my opinion. Picture this: You have a $70 light bulb in the lamp next to the bed or in the hall. Do you really want to fumble around in the dark to find your phone to scroll through screens, to find the app, to turn on the light so you can go to the bathroom or let the dog out? Or how about this "ALEXA, TURN ON BEDSIDE LAMP" when your lovely sleep deprived wife is laying next to you. Go ahead, it'll be alright. Automation is cool! So is practicality.

Sadly to integrate automation successfully it needs to also be manual, just like the home of old. A little kid needs the lights on too. And when you have tons of devices, who can remember the names of them all the time to trigger them from Alexa? Was that "Front Window Lamp, Light, or Outlet? How do you change intensity? Get this: I have a GE 12730 Ceiling Fan Switch.


$45 and it controls a 3 position ceiling fan motor at, low, medium, and high. It's awesome, hold the switch up a second or two and the little blue light flashes and it turns up a notch. Turning it down works the opposite. The nice folks at Home Assistant incorporated it into their program and you can manually select the speed as well.

Really nice as well, but how do you voice trigger it? By golly, like this: "ALEXA SET BEDROOM FAN INTENSITY TO 66" 33=low, 66=medium, 99=high. By golly, that's intuitive. Try remembering that at 3 AM when it's stuffy and you want the fan speed up. Not medium, Sixty-Six. Awesome.

And while we're on the subject of Fan Switches......GE makes another one. The box looks identical except on the upper left corner of the box face there is no model number. That my friends is a GE 14287 switch which by golly isn't yet really supported by Home Assistant because it hasn't seemingly been added to the OpenZWave manufacturer_specific.xml file. Awesome! What the hell does that even mean? It means your $45 dollar switch doesn't work yet unless you have one of the home automation hubs on the box, and I've seen discussion that they don't always work yet either. It's too new.

So you try to name things with common names you can easily remember. I have a vacuum tube amp and preamplifier. The preamp is called a Bottlehead Foreplay. Try as I might Alexa will not voice command it. If I say "ALEXA TURN ON BOTTLEHEAD FOREPLAY OUTLET" it starts playing music through the Echo Dot. I'm so not kidding. So I had to rename it "Foreplay" because I can remember that. When I show off my system almost invariably the first thing someone asks is "Why do you have a device named Foreplay and why would it burn down your house?". And then I get that dirty old man look, usually followed to a punch to the shoulder. Man acceptance.

I love my home automation system, but I fear I'm the only one that can work it. It runs from an Aeotec Zwave Stick in a Raspberry Pi 3 and I have about 40 devices. The subsequent configuration file THAT YOU HAVE TO HAND CODE is about 700 lines long. Hey, anybody can do that right? But my implementation is better than one of these generic hubs that make you follow their methodology. And what do you do when you have 40 devices and then number 41 won't name correctly. That happens. You gonna reset the whole device and start over because you can't dig around under the hood and get in the weeds because you have a hub that won't let you?

Home Automation = COOL!

Home Automation = Frustrating