Why should I automate my home? Which home automation technology should I use? Should I go wired or wireless? Will it work with my Nest thermostat? How should I secure my home? These are some of the questions that we also had before we started researching the home automation and security market. In this article we attempt to make sense of it all and present what we think is the best framework for building your Home Automation (HA) system.
What is Home Automation?
Home Automation is everything you can set up in your home with the goal of making your home smart.
How do you achieve it? By automating things that you would normally have to do yourself:
- Bedtime scene – When you go to bed, you would simply activate the bedtime scene and the following would automatically take place: turn off lights across the home, close the blinds, turn down the heating, lock all the doors and activate the burglar alarm.
- Sunrise scene – When the sun rises the next morning, your weather station would trigger the blinds to open, turn on the heating, play your favourite radio station, and even make you a cup of coffee!
- Home security – Someone’s at the gate and is opening it, your PTZ camera zooms in to see who it is.
- Presence detection – Lights can come on in a room when someone enters and then switch off automatically when the person leaves. Perfect for large family homes!
- Heating – You could also turn down the heating in a room if a window is left open for more than 5 minutes, and send a message to a family member reminding them to close the window.
The possibilities are endless; limited only by your imagination. Essentially you can create “If This Then That (IFTTT)” type of actions where one event triggers a sequence of others.
Home automation is not new, in fact it has been around since the 60s. However it is only recently that DIY home automation has become affordable and at the same time reliable enough for everyday use. Just about anyone today can easily achieve results that rival professional installations that would have cost thousands in the past. Also, the use of wireless Radio Frequency (RF) technology makes it far easier to install in an existing house, as there are no wires to run.
Just as with most new technologies, there is a bewildering number of devices and eco-systems on the market. Making sense of them is not easy if you are just starting out and that’s where we come in. We have been following the industry closely and want to help you build your smart home.
Home Automation products do not all talk to each other – the issue of protocols
Have a look at the bewildering variety of HA products and technologies on the market – how can you make sense of it all? What we need is a framework to understand which product is right for which application.
Firstly, it is important to understand that not all HA products can communicate with each other. This is because not all companies use the same communication protocols, whether they be wired or wireless. This is the biggest challenge that faces the prospective HA buyer. Let’s look at the various communication protocols that exist today:
|ZWave||Wireless||Raspberry Pi4 or PC running Home Assistant, Aeotec Smart Home Hub, Samsung SmartThings|
|Zigbee||Wireless||Raspberry Pi4 or PC running Home Assistant, Aeotec Smart Home Hub, Samsung SmartThings|
|Wi-Fi||Wireless||Raspberry Pi4 or PC running Home Assistant, Aeotec Smart Home Hub, Samsung SmartThings, Philips Hue, Belkin WeMo|
|Bluetooth||Wireless||Raspberry Pi4 or PC running Home Assistant, Elgato, Oort|
|Insteon||Wired or Wireless||Proprietary protocol|
|Apple Homekit||Wireless||Proprietary protocol|
So in order to ensure you have an HA system that works seamlessly, you need to ensure all parts of your system either use the same communication protocol or have bridges/plugins that allow them to talk to each other. What you do not want is isolated sub-systems such as security and lighting that do not talk to each other and thus will need to be controlled separately. Many beginners who do not think through their HA strategy find themselves in this boat at some point.
This is what the uninformed yet enthusiastic beginner usually does: start out with WeMo power plugs, add some Philips Hue bulbs later, and finally add a Samsung IP Camera – and then wonder how you are going to integrate all these devices into a seamless whole. Most of these devices are based on WiFi, and this is what makes them easy to add to your existing home network. All you need is a WiFi router. However the lack of a controller hub, and thus centralised control and monitoring, is their biggest drawback.
What does this mean practically? You may need 4 different apps to control your 4 different sub-systems! It is not impossible to integrate all of these sub-systems and make them work together, but it would be far more cost effective to think through and plan your HA strategy carefully first.
Our recommended approach – use a Home Automation Controller Hub
Our recommended approach is to use a controller hub. A central controller will be the brains of the HA system. All the sensors and sub-systems such as lighting report to the controller and in turn get instructions from it. The controller can be configured and monitored from a computer, or via apps on a smartphone or tablet. Examples of controllers are a Raspberry Pi running Home Assistant, Hubitat ElevationAeotec Smart Home Hub, Hubitat Elevation, Samsung SmartThings etc.
Most off-the-shelf controllers are designed primarily for a particular HA protocol, but will support certain other protocols too, either by default or by way of add-ons/extender modules. For example, popular controllers such as the Hubitat supports the Z-Wave, Zigbee and Wi-Fi protocols. However when you choose a controller, you are still investing into an eco-system and thus need to choose wisely.
Consider your current needs (say, lighting control) and future needs (multi-zone heating, security, IP cameras etc.), then choose a main protocol and system that will meet most if not all those needs. Or in other words, there should be a good range of products that use your main chosen protocol (such as Z-Wave).
There is a fully DIY route as well – and this is what I have done: Build your own controller using a computer, a Raspberry Pi, or a NAS and then running home automation software on them (either commercial or open-source). My primary home automation controller is the Home Assistant software running on a Raspberry Pi 4.
I also have a laptop running Windows 10 Pro with the HomeSeer HS4 software – this supports some older Z-Wave devices that Home Assistant doesn’t recognise.
This is a perfect setup for those who want to tinker and really get into the nuts and bolts of home automation. But I don’t recommend this for beginners. So see my recommendations below.
Choosing your Home Automation Sub-Systems
By sub-systems we are referring to the parts that make up your HA system such as lighting, heating, security etc. You can either create the sub-system yourself by picking and choosing elements or choose an off-the-shelf proprietary sub-system. Let’s take the example of the lighting sub-system:
- Creating the lighting sub-system yourself would mean installing relays and dimmers behind your existing light switches (eg. Fibaro dimmers).
- Using an off-the-shelf system such as the Philips Hue bulbs means that you simply replace your existing bulbs with the Philips Hue bulbs and you are set to go.
Here are some examples of proprietary sub-systems:
|Heating||Nest thermostat, Honeywell EvoHome|
|Energy Metering||Efergy, Smappee, Neurio|
Home Automation & Home Security
Home automation (HA) and security go hand in hand. Home security is best viewed as a vital part of a well-planned home automation system. If you are just starting out, you may be interested only in home security and have no intention of automating your home at present. But you should choose your home security system in such a way that you can always make it part of a home automation system if you choose to in the future.
Our Recommended Home Automation Protocol
The ZWave platform is the most promising due to the large number of products available from a multitude of suppliers at reasonable prices. The intense competition among ZWave product suppliers is to our benefit as consumers. The latest version of the protocol called ZWave Plus further cements its position as the industry leading HA protocol. This protocol is backwards compatible which means you dont have to worry about your existing devices being made obsolete when you upgrade the HA controller.
Recommended Smart Home Automation Systems
If you want a smart home automation system that is capable, reliable but requires the least investment of time, there is no one solution that I can recommend whole-heartedly. The reason is that there is a learning curve for every platform. The simple ones such as Vera Plus lack the ability to create complex events. The ones that can create complex events have a steep learning curve. Still my first system was the Vera Plus and in a year I out-grew it. I wouldn’t use the Samsung SmartThings though – too many compromises and reliability is an issue.
If you want a smart home automation system that is very powerful, super-reliable, requires some investment of time, don’t want to spend much money (<$100), have a laptop to spare or know how to build a Pi, just go with the excellent free Home Assistant software. This is what I have done, and I haven’t looked back.
Now check out how I built our own DIY smart home automation system. Also see The Ultimate IP Camera Buying Guide if you are interested in learning the basics of IP cameras.