I often get questions from friends, family and colleagues about our Home Automation (HA) system and how they can also get something like it. I have already written a detailed technology guide to home automation but this blog post is about how I put my system together and how you can do the same without breaking the bank.
Home automation is so affordable and accessible these days. Gone are the days when you had to shell out thousands for your own smart home, and even then the end result was far from impressive! You can get fully wireless smart home lighting or security kits for $100-$200 today, instead of the thousands it used to cost! And you don’t need an army of technicians to install it either. The focus of my blog is DIY smart home solutions, and you can get your smart home set up yourself for the most part – you may need a certified electrician if you are not confident enough or your country’s codes require you to use one.
What does my Home Automation System do?
Currently these are the various things it can do, from any screen in the house or from anywhere on the planet, and by voice control:
- Turn on/off lights around the house according to the time of the day and the weather OR on demand via smartphone, wall-mounted tablet or voice control (no mind-control yet!)
- For each heating zone, set the right thermostat set points depending on the season and weather
- Maintain the temperature in each zone of the house based on that zone’s thermostat set point
- Run the boiler according to the hot water schedule everyday.
- Automatically turn on/off the humidifier in the baby’s nursery based on the measured humidity in the room.
- At night, turn lights on in the stairs when motion is detected. Switch it off after 5 minutes of no motion.
- Monitor all my security cameras.
- If motion is detected when the alarm system is armed, turn on QNAP Surveillance Station camera recording and turn on the correct outside lights.
- Take snaps/record Surveillance Station videos based on different triggers such as new post or a doorbell push.
- Send me email alerts when anything unusual happens in the house or if the alarm system is triggered
Of course there’s a lot more it can do. Even with my current setup, there are probably hundreds of different scenarios I could set up to make my life more comfortable and increase the security of my home – this is what gets me really excited about home automation!
What I wish I knew when I started on Home Automation
As discussed in detail in my home automation technology guide, think of different functions in your home as sub-systems. For example, lighting is a sub-system, so are heating, water management, and fire safety. Ultimately you need all your sub-systems to be aware of each other and interact well so that you can actually automate your home, not end up with an expensive collection of stuff that gives you headaches!
Choose your HA platform carefully – I chose Z-Wave
As I say again and again, you have to think long and hard about the basic technology platform that your home automation is built on. If you start buying stuff without considering how they will interact with each other, you will end up wasting your money on kit that works poorly as a whole. With home automation, the attitude has to be ‘set-and-forget’. Your time is precious and should be spent doing what you love with those you love, NOT troubleshooting your smart home all the time. Your smart home should always be working away in the background, doing what you have asked it to quietly and efficiently. It should make its presence felt only when needed.
What are your options? Even though modern wireless home automation is still in its infancy, there is a bewildering array of home automation platforms:
- DIY platforms
- Proprietary platforms that allow unrelated smart devices to work together
- Amazon’s Alexa-powered smart speakers
- Apple Homekit
- Google Home
- Platforms based on open standards such as Z-Wave and Zigbee
- Cloud-reliant DIY platforms
- Eg. Samsung SmartThings
- Pros: Cheap, but basic in capabilities
- Cons: Won’t work without the cloud, not much control in your hands, your data is not yours really
- Consumer level DIY platforms that are not reliant on the cloud/Internet <- I recommend these
- Eg. HomeSeer, Vera Controls & Fibaro HomeCentre
- Pros: Affordable and can be very powerful with added plugins
- Cons: Not simple to use if you want to get the most out of it
- Cloud-reliant DIY platforms
- Proprietary platforms that allow unrelated smart devices to work together
- Professional platforms such as Control4
- Very costly, very advanced and will need professional installation & support.
- Managed platforms such as Vivint and ADT
- Installed and maintained by a 3rd party, costly.
So what did I go for? As shown in red above, a DIY Consumer level platform that is not cloud-reliant. Specifically, I chose Z-Wave technology as the foundation of my smart home and there are quite a few reasons:
- Its wireless.
- Its not one manufacturer’s proprietary standard – means I am not tied into one single company’s products or eco-system (no, I am not an Apple person either).
- More manufacturers means more choice and more competition, meaning the customer invariably benefits.
- Industry leading standard that has solid reliability and high performance, at low prices.
- I don’t think its going away anytime soon due to the huge Z-Wave ecosystem that exists today.
My Z-Wave based Home Automation Layout
Long-time readers may have be aware that I used the Vera Plus from Vera Controls as my smart home hub for the last 2 years. However as the time available to work on my HA system has reduced (I am a father of 2 young kids) and my HA needs have grown (for example my multi-zone automatic heating system), I outgrew the Vera Plus. I have done an extensive review of the Vera Plus which is a great resource if you would like to learn more about why I chose it at the time.
The stock Vera could handle basic to medium-level complexity scenes. So actions such as turning my hot water on according to a schedule was handled fine by the default Vera. But my fully automated central heating control is way too complex for the default scene editor, so I used the PLEG plugin instead. While I was able to create a single-zone automatic heating system using PLEG, the PLEG plugin is clunky and had a very workman-like archaic approach to workflow. This became impossible to deal with as my second child arrived – I simply did not have the luxury of time or the patience.
After much dithering about the higher cost of HomeSeer software and a laptop to run it vs. my Vera Plus, I finally decided to switch to the HomeSeer HS3 software in May this year when they had their annual sale. I am SO glad I did.
HomeSeer Home Automation Controller – my Smart Home Hub
The heart of my DIY home automation system today is the HomeSeer HS3 software running on a low-power Windows 10 laptop equipped with an Everspring SA-413 USB Z-Wave stick. I could have gone with HomeSeer’s own hardware controllers but a laptop meant that it had a built-in 10 hour battery backup. This is a very powerful Z-Wave based solution that connects to a wide variety of devices such as:
- various Z-Wave multi-sensors and Z-Wave smart plugs around the house
- my QNAP NAS NVR security camera system which makes it aware of my cameras’ motion detection status
- my home theatre system through an Ethernet-to-IR bridge
- my Z-Wave based boiler controls
- my tablets and mobile phones which have the beautiful Imperihome dashboard app to control my smart home
I just love these amazing little devices that can sense everything you may want to monitor in your house. Temperature, humidity, light levels, motion detection, vibrations, UV rays – you name it, there’s a sensor for it.
Based on the readings of the sensor, you can make your Vera Plus heat up or cool down a particular room, switch on lights, open the blinds, send you a text alert, etc.
These sensors are battery powered so you can place them anywhere in your house. But hey won’t the batteries run out quickly? The beauty of Z-Wave technology is that it’s mesh-based and is ultra low-power, unlike Wi-Fi which requires much more power. So the batteries will last for at least a year.
Z-Wave Smart Plugs
Everyone’s heard about Belkin’s WeMo which popularised the idea of making dumb appliances smart by putting a smart plug between the wall and the appliance. Z-Wave smart plugs are similar, but they just work on the far more reliable Z-Wave wireless technology instead of Wi-Fi like the WeMo.
I bought a truckload of smart plugs and have been very happy with the Greenwave smart plugs, I currently use them to automate my bedside lamps, floor-stander lamps, humidifier and air purifier.
Z-Wave Boiler Controller
In a sense my home automation journey started with my boiler controller. When we moved into our new home, I quickly found that the existing boiler controller was outdated and didn’t even have a holiday mode! So instead of replacing it with a new ‘dumb’ controller, I got my first Z-Wave device, the Secure 2-channel boiler receiver.
There are a few ways you can control your home theatre devices – gold old infrared which is supported by any device, or sending http commands via a network connection. But I didn’t know that I could make my Vera Plus control an infrared emitter to mimic an IR remote control!
So my first attempt was the http API route. While my Denon AVR fully supported http API commands, my Panasonic Viera LCD TV had a limited http API command set. So this was a no go. Some quick research led me to a curious plugin for the Vera Plus that could control an InfraRed emitter from a company called Global Cache. I managed to score one of these Global Cache Ethernet to IR devices on eBay.
This is a brilliant device which plugs into a network switch using its ethernet port and will take properly formatted TCP/IP commands and convert it into InfraRed commands that it beams out of one of its three IR emitters.
They also have a WiFi-to-IR model but I haven’t tried it.
QNAP NAS as NVR and VPN Server
The TS-253A is my network storage, my NVR, my media streaming server using DLNA and finally my VPN server. The VPN server feature is especially cool because it lets me remotely access my home network and everything on it including the Vera Plus in a safe and secure manner.
So these are all the various bits of kit that I have added to my HomeSeer HS3 Home Automation System right now. While I do not have a review of the HomeSeer system up yet, check out my detailed hands-on review of the Vera Plus if you would like to learn step-by-step how to add each Z-Wave device to a Vera Plus. Got any questions, comments or feedback? Leave a comment below!