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Building a Smart Home: Episode 1, The Beginning

February 5, 2017 Leave a comment

I’m doing it! I’m building my dream home! I have finally outgrown my current place of residence and am in the process of building my own home and can customize a lot of features to what I want, and I want a smart home.

What defines a smart home?

In this planning phase, I have several requirements that must be met for me to define my home as a “smart home.” Smart home is an extremely loose term. If you use plugs that you can access and activate with your smartphone, is this a smart house? Technically, I suppose. But this does not enrich your life. My definition of a smart home is a series of interconnected devices in your home with remote access capability that allow for automation of tasks, notification of events, home environment monitoring with immediate feedback, and on-demand event triggering that will seamlessly enrich the lives of the smart home inhabitants and its users. Specifically for this project, it must:

  • be accessible via smartphone
  • be able to be controlled by voice commands
  • be borderline 100% usable without a smartphone/smart device (i.e. tablet or computer)
  • allow for development of routines/automations
  • allow devices to communicate with each other in some capacity (Z-wave, ZigBee, RF, wireless)
  • make my life better
  • user interface must be acceptable to spouse
  • allow the entry of guests without significant difficulty when homeowners are not available or around
  • allow notifications of specified events (i.e. alarm system contacts specified users)
  • be secure

In addition to these minimal requirements, I have several aesthetic, specification, and design requirements:

  • no visible cords
  • user interface must be intuitive
  • must allow old-school utilization in the event of power/internet failure (i.e. internet goes down,  but the door locks still allow entry)
  • alarm system must have contingency ability in the even of internet failure
  • minimal visible aesthetic disruption due to quantity of devices
  • devices must be aesthetically appealing

Current State of Smart Home Technology

There are many different types of smart home products available and even more coming to market. These devices are commonly referred to collectively as the IoT (internet of things) as they have the capability to connect to the internet in an invisible way and “do things.” Its not a computer, its not a server… its a thing that connects to the internet! Most of the devices offered to make a smart home are wireless. In the past couple years there’s been an explosion of different types of popular wireless technology used in smart home devices: ZigBee, Z-wave, RF, bluetooth, and wireless/wifi. There are several differences between these but most of them have one common concept of requiring a hub. The hub serves as the source of control of these devices whether it be a light switch, door lock, thermostat, room environment sensor, motion sensor, etc. Depending on the technology the user chooses determines which hub to purchase. The hub is partially dictated by which ecosystem a user is invested with their current home devices (iPad, Android tablet, iPhone, Android smartphone). The reason this is important is because the smartphone is the device that almost always follows you and next to you. If you have an Android phone and start investing in Apple Homekit devices… you made a poor choice of building your smart home.

Ecosystems

There are two predominant smartphone operating system, Android and iOS. Depending on which operating system you use will partially dictate which smart home ecosystem you choose to use. Android cannot use Apple Homekit. Apple iPhones can use about any system, but not always via Homekit. Homekit is a homegrown smart home technology developed by Apple. On every iOS device there is an app called Home and this is where the devices you install will show up IF they are Homekit compatible. There are currently not very many Homekit compatible devices as the hardware and softwareworks_with_homekit requirements dictated by Apple are high and relatively expensive. In order for a device to show up in the iOS Home app, it must Work with Apple Homekit”. If it doesn’t show the logo to the right, then chances are it won’t work with the Home app. This does not mean your iOS device cannot use it however, it just means you will need the manufacturers app to control the device. The hub used for Homekit systems can be either an iPad that remains within the home at all times for the automations or you can use an Apple TV (4th generation). The easiest choice is Apple TV as this probably will not leave your house. You CAN use Homekit devices without a hub, but you cannot make routines or automation via Homekit (i.e. when I arrive home the lights turn on). All automation requires a hub for all ecosystems.

Amazon Echo is another ecosystem that is widely available and widely supported. compatible_with_amazon_echoI can already hear some of you saying “Amazon Echo is not an ecosystem!!” This is technically true, but most products say “Compatible with Amazon Echo” and its just like Apple Homekit, except made by Amazon. When that compatibility is specified, it means you can control the device with Amazon’s Echo device. Amazon Echo is extremely popular and widely compatible with almost all smart home devices in some capacity. However, Amazon Echo is not a hub. A hub is still required, just like Homekit, to create routines and automation.

These two devices have been the predominant influence behind most automation. Google has developed their own persona assistant, Google Home, which is quickly becoming popular. When building my smart home, I want to maximize compatibility. If I want to change from iOS to Android, I don’t want to have to dump all smart home products I’ve purchased because they are ONLY Homekit compatible. I don’t want my smartphone to dictate my home nor my home to dictate my smartphone purchase. That being said, I have invested into the Apple ecosystem and use mostly iOS products, therefore I do want to make my home as Homekit compatible as possible but still keep it such that a non-iOS device would work just fine.

Wireless Communication Between Devices

A smart home is smart because the devices are able to talk to each other, respond to automation requests, and in some cases piggy-back on each others wireless abilities. Like mentioned earlier, there are several wireless technologies: ZigBee, Z-wave, RF, bluetooth, and wireless/wifi.

ZigBee is the oldest standard first developed in 1998 by IEEE (the people who standardize wifi). A group of ZigBee devices form a mesh network and that the ability to extend the network beyond the original start point. For example, consider Device A, B, and C to be ZigBee devices. Device A is closest to the hub, Device B is further away but still within radio distance of Device A, Device C is far away from the hub and cannot detect it, but can smart_home_diagramdetect and connect to Device B. The hub would be able to communicate with Device C by pushing the signal to Device A or Device B to reach Device C. For instance, in diagram to the right, the Hub can communicate with the Lamp via either of the Lights or the Door Lock even though the Lamp is not able to contact the Hub directly. Basically, each device allows another device to communicate through it to reach back to the hub, and vice versa. Mesh network! Some of the newer routers are working like this as well (Eero, Google Wifi, Orbi).

Z-wave was originally  a proprietary wireless technology developed rather recently. It works basically the same as ZigBee. The differences are that it is slower but can reach further (30 meters compared to 10 meters per Electronic Design). Here’s a table from Electronic Design with the rundown:

73665-table

Bluetooth is exactly what you expect but with a few caveats. Most devices use Bluetooth LE (low energy) to save on battery which makes a HUGE difference in battery life. Since most of these smart devices are completely wireless, that’s a big deal. The goal is that the battery life of the device would last for months or years instead of days. The problem is that it has about the same range as normal Bluetooth and does not do mesh networking. So your smart device (lock, light control, etc) has to be within a certain range of your controlling device or hub. If your house is giant, this is not a good idea to use unless you want a lot of hubs (seems counterintuitive and extremely expensive) or just use the smart device when you’re near with your smartphone. Most modern smartphones are equipped with Bluetooth LE.

Wifi is exactly what you’d expect. The device connects to your wifi network and typically does not require a hub. However, in order for it to be automated, you will need a stay-at-home hub such as Apple TV for Homekit. The manufacturer iDevices is a maker of wifi connected smart devices and they are predominatly targeted to Homekit users. Like Bluetooth LE, these devices do not use mesh but instead need to be within wifi network range to work.

Hubs

I’ve been talking about hubs the entire time, but lets detail them briefly. Hubs are used for automation and binding the devices together. There are several hubs available and many more being added from each manufacturer. The important thing is to get a hub that is compatible with what you are buying. If you bought a lot of Lutron Caséta wireless dimmers and you have Homekit, then you are in trouble. BUUUUUT, you could buy the Lutron hub which will connect to your Homekit and THAT will work. But then you just bought an Apple TV (or iPad… but just don’t… spring for the Apple TV since it will never leave your home) and you also just bought a Lutron hub… just to dim your lights. Samsung SmartThings is a multipurpose hub (connects to both ZigBee and Z-wave devices). However, be sure to check with your target devices to make sure it is compatible with Samsung SmartThings. For example, the Lutron Caséta uses RF so won’t work with Samsung SmartThings, but will work with Wink (another hub). It gets super complicated super quickly. I’ll reference you to this great website that I use a lot, Wirecutter, where they review smart hubs in depth. In the end, it depends on which products you want to end up using and what kind of compatibility you want and what you want them to do.

This Is Long

This blog was supposed to go into details on smart devices, what they do, which ones to go with, what you want, etc etc. But its getting too long for such a huge topic. Smart devices for home automation is expanding faster than I can type. Just in writing this one post, iDevices listed their in-wall remote for pre-order and now its actually available. That is fast (or I’m slow, even though it took  me just a few days to write this). So we are going to break this entire thing up into several different posts. This post was just to get us started, the next one I’m going to go into more detail on what I want out of my smart home and focus on light switches since this, in my opinion, is one of the most useful aspects of making your home smart.