This is going to be a multi-part series on the different technologies that I have in my smart home and what i did for each one to be able to get them working together. But first, let’s reminisce a bit…
Let’s start at the beginning of the Home Automation journey
When I was a kid, I grew up watching TV programs like “Tomorrows World”, “Star Trek” and even that classic “The Jetsons” (feeling old yet?). Frequently advertised in these programs were considerations of what living in the future would be like. You can already see the impact that these programs have had on the technology that we have accessible to us in the recent past and today. Consider the mobile phone or the tablet PC for one moment. Without hesitation, you can see that throughout the history of these devices. They have taken their functional and design cues from such items as the Star Trek Communicator and Data Padds.
One of the key visions, especially in Tomorrow’s World was what would the house of the future look like. What technologies would exist to make our lives at home more convenient? How would people interact with tasks as mundane and obvious as flicking on a light switch be made easier? Enter the dawn of Home Automation or the Smart Home!
As I grew up, more and more influences in media appeared to sell me the idea of home automation. Remember that scene in Back to the Future 2, when Jennifer is brought home by the future police and they use her fingerprint to open the door and voice commands to turn the lights on? I wanted exactly that. So many influences with the power of Hollywood have shaped a lot on the technologies that are available to us today at an affordable price.
Time = money
When I had bought my house and decided that I wanted to go down the route of building my smart home, there were a few considerations that I had to take:
- Installation and ongoing usage
- Maturity of technology
- Ease of use for non-technical people
Lets take a look into each of these considerations.
Home Automation Cost
My journey into home automation started in the winter of 2013 and by then some technologies had a foothold in the smart home space. One of these was Control4, and I immediately began investigating the cost and effort into installing a Control4 system into my house.
Control4 was one of the leading end to end solutions (purchasing to implementing to ongoing usage) however there were some aspects I didn’t like. The first (and most important) was that, at the time. I would need to replace my entire lighting wiring system with either network cable or coax cable. This was something that was an enormous job to undertake and the quote I had received made my eyes water (upwards of £15k). I also needed to be prepared to terminate the cabling in a network racking solution that would have been fairly large, and at the time I had nowhere to really put this.
This forced me down the route of looking at other technologies that wouldn’t necessarily require me to rip walls apart to run extra cabling. If i could get wireless or devices that used the existing lighting circuit then that would save me a considerable amount of money and effort in having to redecorate.
Home Automation Installation and Usage
I wanted to make sure that installation had to be fairly non invasive. I was happy to run cables through floorboards and wall cavities, but most my walls were solid brick. This meant wired had to be chased into walls which equalled mess and more dust than the Sahara! If I could get away with some wireless technology, then for me that was an excellent compromise. However I then had further requirements about wireless in terms of security, speed and status:
- Wanted the devices to be directly interfaced with my home wifi (brick walls are bad for wireless signals)
- The activation of the device had to be as quick as possible. Preferably at the same speed as if you were physically interacting with the device.
- I wanted to be notified of the current status of the device so I could tell at a glance what was off and what was on
- I definitely didn’t want someone outside of my home to be able to hack and interact with my devices, and I knew that this was an issue with emerging technologies.
Maturity of Home Automation technology
This was an important one for me, but one that carried the most risk, given the price and installation effort. Since I implemented my initial smart home devices, I’ve seen so many technologies emerge in an attempt to eat into the Smart Home market share. I’ve actually backed a few of these on KickStarter, to help these companies establish a product that can address various wants and needs. Unfortunately, some of these backed projects have either failed to gather enough support, or have been unable to deliver the product that they said they would. In ALL the cases that I had backed, of the ones that failed, they failed due to one reason – the rapidly changing landscape of the technology that was being used.
There have been some proprietary home automation technologies such as Lightwave RF (who are still working strong today). However, when I was trying to implement, missed the mark in terms of features and technology. Investing money and time into a product that after 6 months is either a) outdated or b) obsolete is not a fun way to spend either time or money. However, the issue is as with all emerging tech, which is going to be viable in x amount of years.
Ease of use
Now, I consider myself tech savvy and extremely hands on. I enjoy lifting the bonnet on things and tinkering around to see what makes things work and ultimately this not only helps me invest in the product. But also become familiar with being able to use the technology as an end user and not just as an administrator. Unfortunately, I also have my other family members to consider.
When I started this project, I needed to ensure that my wife (who is not technologically at ease as I Am) was able to use the home automation bits that I had thrown together. My daughter at the time was an infant, but indirectly she would be also interacting with the system that was implemented. The system should also be able to be used as natively as possible without affecting its future functionality or needing additional devices just to make it work.
Now that I had considered these factors and done my research, the plan was to narrow down the technology to a few contenders. Unfortunately, the above considerations are not the end all or be all. The one thing I consistently asked myself was “why am I implementing this? What is it that I want the system to be able to do?”
All this was born out of my-then toddler daughter. I wanted to ensure that we set her up to be an independent person, and we started relatively early (she always had her own bed and room before we even moved into this house). She was at that age where she would go to the bathroom by herself in the middle of the night. I initially wanted to simply have a glorified “night light” that would light her way from the bedroom. Across the hallway and into the bathroom and wouldn’t be able to reach the traditional light switches.
How would I trigger the actions of the lights turning on automatically? I’d have to have some PIR’s that would be responsible for the action. If I had basic standalone Smart Home system, then I’d have to pair the system up with some dedicated battery operated PIR’s. Fortunately, I wanted to also install a hard-wired security system, which would come with its own set of sensors. I looked to see what options there were out there to use and finally narrowed down to the beginning of the build of my Smart Home v1.0
Smart Home 1.0
As you can tell, I’m a meticulous planner to keep my budget and effort as manageable as possible. However where I see the benefit in spending properly. I Am able to make that decision. I had already used an alarm panel as the backbone of my system. And by this time I had decided not only on a communications technology for the basis of the home automation but had already chosen a manufacturer.
Smart Home 1.0 Shopping List:
- A DSC PowerSeries Alarm Panel paired with an Envisalink EVL integration module (this would take the events from the alarm system such as PIR triggers or door sensor events and pass them through to my Home automation controller). The overall cost of the complete alarm system was approximately £600 however could be used standalone if needed. The Envisalink cost about £100 and my thinking at the time was that if I decided to go a different direction. It was a relatively small amount to be able to sacrifice.
- A MiCasaVerde Vera Lite Z-Wave Controller – this was an entry level controller which was fairly cheap (around £120) and the reason that I picked the Vera was because it already had an established community base and had people creating plugins for various external devices, including the Envisalink. The great guys helped immensely at vesternet who have been in the home automation game for a while and they could recommend and supply the various home automation modules.
- Fibaro Dimmer Modules, and which used the z-wave protocol and were able to control the lighting loads. These modules were tiny for what they could do (about the size of a small pack of matches). These sit behind the existing light switches and use the existing wiring in the switch to power themselves. The modules were approximately £50 each and I initially bought 2 to place in the hallway and bathroom light switches.
- Fibaro Dimmer Modules (link)
Benefits of Z-Wave
The reason I decided on the z-wave protocol is as follows:
- Secure wireless transmission protocol
- 2 way update of device status
- Mesh networking so that the signal route for devices that are far away continues to work
- had great backing from industry giants such as Phillips, Yale, LG and Samsung
- modular, so I Can upgrade at any time with little cost.
It required now all that was to link up all the various modules to the Vera Lite. The DSC Plugin was a key piece. This allowed Vera to see events taking place, such as doors being opened and PIRs being tripped. I could then set automation rules using these triggers.
Tying it all together
One of the glorious things about the Vera user interface it that it’s primarily graphically driven. Most functions had a “wizard” driven interface, so you simply need to follow the predefined steps. The Vera has a great community driven plugin store. One such plugin was the DSC integration that interfaced with the alarm system.
Once installed, the configuration was as easy as pointing to the IP address that the Envisalink had been assigned. I had to update the username and password so the two could start talking. Once I had defined the rooms that had Alarm elements in them Vera reflected the following on the dashboard.
Linking the Fibaro modules was an effortless task. I had to press the “pair” button on the Vera “Add Device” screen and then activate the light switch. Once I had defined the device, an icon called “Hallway Light” appeared and was ready to be interacted with.
Finally, I needed to get the automation piece working. Vera has the concept of “scenes” for automation rules. They are built on the standard logic gates of “IF”,”AND” “THEN” & “ELSE” statements that are wrapped up in a nice wizard interface.
To complete my initial requirement of lighting the hallway, i needed to design the following behaviour:
Example smart home scene
Behaviour one: “IF the time of day was “Night” (i didn’t want this to trigger during the day). AND the Hallway Light was off. AND IF the Hallway Alarm sensor was triggered, THEN dim the hallway light up 20%.” – This would enable my daughter to see around the hallway and make her way to the bathroom.
Behaviour two: “IF the light level in the bathroom was less than “x” Lux, (our bathroom faces the side alley and we need to turn the light on if the sun isn’t shining). AND the Bathroom Light was off. IF the Bathroom Alarm sensor was triggered, THEN switch on the bathroom light.”
Finally, behaviour three “IF no movement is detected in either the bathroom or the hallway after 5 mins. THEN turn off both lights”. Pretty logical. It took 10 mins to create the scene and works as I wanted it to. The video shows the 2nd behaviour of the speed of turning on the bathroom light by triggering the bathroom sensor.
For Smart Home 1.0, I think, was a resounding success. For, a basic implementation it did what i set out to do and was relatively easy to put in.
The key thing for me was to now build upon the foundations I had. The complex pieces were dealt with, the alarm system acting as the backbone. My future plans at the time were to incorporate:
- lighting control in every room
- Media Centre Control
- incorporating door locks
- automating curtains
To see how far I managed to get, please stay tuned. Any comments or requests, please hit me up in the comments section.
More Home automation Articles Smart Home
Its always important to share knowledge to help make this field further expand. Down below I will list some interesting articles about Home automation and how to make your house into a smart home.