Posted on 2021-11-29
(I rambled about this previously and it aged poorly and embarrassed me when I read it. I will restart the clock by rewriting it but you can read it here)
Home Automation is a neat way to spend money and feel like you have any control over this chaos. We are a nerdy tech family and are often early adopters. When people ask for recommendations… It gets weird.
The first step is that I describe what I see as the fundamental challenge and how current tech can solve that; not to educate anyone but just to restate the problem and let everyone know my understanding. Second step is to describe some arcane fundamental principles that mustn’t be violated when choosing a production solution. Third step is explaining away the more painful parts of Step 2 when choosing a product.
These three steps come up when discussing: Gaming Systems, Cell Phones, Doorbells, Televisions, Laptops, Automobiles, Home Security Cameras and Home Automation Systems. It’s never fun for anyone.
Home automation is a network of devices that communicate to each other and change state on a schedule or when instructed. Their communication should consume very little power, so that batteries last long, and it should be (almost very) reliable that messages sent are seen.
A) Our automation system should work almost the same when (not if) any of the following disappear suddenly and forever:
Internet provider (Spectrum),
Product Manufacturer (Vera Micasa),
Email provider (Gmail)
Cloud services like Amazon AWS, GCP, Azure, or DNS (it’s always DNS)
B) No one should ever be able to turn off my lights, look at my cameras, or change my thermostat (legally) without me explicitly granting access. OOOOOOR, for convenience and easy of use: we trust them not to but can block them easily when they do.
C) My lightbulbs should never slowdown my movie streaming or video conferencing.
D) It should cost $0 to use in perpetuity. Definitely shouldn’t cost anything to leave or change to a different brand of home controller.
The easiest to use home controllers fail hard with principle A&B and the cheapest/easiest devices violate principle C.
The controller we use is Vera (getvera.com) They have a small box that you plug into power and plug into your home network (or use wifi) and it is the central controller for your home devices. It communicates with ZWave which is a trademark for low-power, mesh networking. It helps to think of it as bluetooth, but every device can pass messages along to the next nearest device – so the range is better than your average bluetooth speaker.
Our controller has a website on our home network that lists devices with toggle switches next to them. It is /not/ a great user interface. This local website works when our power goes out (as long as we have battery) or when Internet goes away. There are phone apps that allow us to control stuff easily. And /when/ we find out that Vera is sold, or hacked, or turned evil for profit it would be trivial to update our home network to block our controller from reaching the Internet and it would still work.
The most tricky part of all this is “binding a new device”. The essential security problem is that when you install a new zwave door lock or something, the HUB and the device go into low-power-tranmission pairing – so that someone in a panel van parked outside can’t hijack your handshake. The good news is that once your get a device working on your network you never have to think about it again.
The vera controller has an open API which means if you’re into programming you can write programs that change your environment from the command-line – and that’s fun.
Here is a list of the types of devices we use and enjoy:
Garage Door Opener
Exterior Door locks – this is great for remotely granting access to cat-sitters or neighbors.
8+ in-wall light switches – priceless to shut down the house from your bed (see door locks too).
Exterior blade door alarms – we know the gates keeping our dogs in the yard are left open
Motion detectors inside and out – (great for auto-lighting the stairs when walking around in the middle of the night)
Electric Meter reader – we can record our usage
SMOKE DETECTORS! – it’s great to know my smoker detectors talk to me from 3000 miles away.
All these devices were pretty cheap. We started with the front door lock and one light switch. Adding one device at a time at an average $50 per device. Just looking around our kickass house automation probably cost less than $1000 over 6 years. If you are like us, it is a very worthwhile investment for these and many more use cases:
* your watch buzzes when someone leaves your yard gate open and you’re about to let the dogs out.
* you want to turn on the heat at 4am from bed because San Diego decides to have weather and it’s 40F degrees
* you want an email log of when you opened the medicine cabinet to keep track of your medication routines
* you want to turn on the exterior christmas lights when people are walking up the street towards your house. 🙂
In general, when picking your home controller ask the question “How well does it work when Amazon AWS goes offline for an afternoon?” and “If I added 30 more devices would Netflix start buffering more?”
Avoid Nest or Ring because they are evil (ask for receipts if you need them).
Avoid Wifi or Bluetooth lightbulbs or switches because it adds lots of noise to your home and you should want to be able to change your Wifi SSiD and still be able to turn home lights while you’re away on vacation.
Maybe avoid Zigbee as your primary low-energy mesh network because there are less devices and they are more expensive.
Zwave seems pretty great in terms of cost and available devices.