How we built our DIY Home Automation System

I often get questions from friends, family and colleagues about our home automation 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!

See, here’s an excerpt from a 1990 Washington Post article:

Parks sees 1995 as the year that cheap, easy-to-use automation components will be readily found at retail outlets. At that point, though, she said she looks for intelligent subsystems, in the $4,000 to $6,000 range, controlling only parts of the home.

“Your bedroom might have a script where you say good night and all the lights go off and then, in the morning, {it turns} them back on,” she said.

Washington Post

Forget about the fact that this didn’t happen in 1995 as the home automation expert claimed and its only recently that you could find home automation gear in your favourite retail haunt, but you know what? You can get fully wireless “intelligent subsystems” for $100-$200 today, not thousands! And you don’t need an army of technicians  to install it either. The focus of my blog is DIY solutions, and you can get your smart home set up yourself for the most part.

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:

  1. Turn on/off lights around the house on demand, or on a schedule.
  2. Automatically maintain the temperature in the house based on my thermostat set point.
  3. Run the hot water schedule everyday.
  4. Automatically turn on/off the humidifier in the baby’s nursery based on humidity in the room.
  5. At night, turn lights on in the stairs when motion is detected.
  6. Monitor all my security cameras and take snaps/videos based on different triggers
  7. Send me alerts when anything unusual happens in the house

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.

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
      • IFTTT
    • 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: Wont work without the cloud, not much control in your hands
      • Consumer level DIY platforms that are not reliant on the cloud
        • Eg. 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
  • Professional platforms such as Control4 and Homeseer
    • Very advanced, may need professional support to set up
  • Managed platforms such as Vivint and ADT
    • Installed and maintained by a 3rd party

So what did I go for? As bolded 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

How we built our DIY Home Automation System - VueVille

Vera Plus Home Automation Controller or as I call it Smart Home Hub

The heart of my DIY home automation system is the Vera Plus from Vera Control. This is a very versatile Z-Wave based hub that connects to a wide variety of devices such as:

  • various Z-Wave sensors and Z-Wave smart plugs around the house
  • all of my IP cameras through ONVIF and mJPEG
  • my home theatre system through the http protocol and 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 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.

Hands-on 2017 Review: Vera Plus Z-Wave Smart Home Controller

I have always wanted a smart home. Even back when I was a kid, I dreamt about being able to just say things and then ...

User rating:
8.5

The stock Vera can handle basic to medium-level complexity scenes. So actions such as turning my hot water on according to a schedule is handled by the default Vera. But my fully automated central heating control is way too complex for the default scene editor, so I use the excellent PLEG plugin instead.

Both the default editor and the PLEG plugin happily co-exist, so its really the best of both worlds!

Z-Wave Sensors

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.

I use the Fibaro Gen 5 Multisensor and the Aeotec Multisensor 6 – I am very pleased with both of these sensors and would recommend them in a heartbeat.

Hands-on Review: Fibaro Z-Wave Motion Sensor Gen5 (FGMS-001)

When I started thinking about getting into home automation and building my smart home, I spent months researching ...

7.1

Hands-on Review: Aeon Labs Aeotec Multisensor 6 Z-Wave Gen 5 (ZW100)

As my baby son suffers from a mild case of dry skin, we need to ensure the environment in his nursery is always at ...

7.5

Z-Wave Smart Plugs

Everyone’s heard about Belkin’s WeMo, they 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 Z-Wave instead of Wi-Fi like the WeMos.

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.

Review: Greenwave PowerNode 1-port Z-Wave Smart Plug with Power Monitoring

It's all well and good being able to monitor motion and temperatures changes around your house, but your home truly ...

8.8

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.

Secure SSR302 Z-Wave Two Channel Boiler Actuator 3A by Secure

Usually ships in 3-4 business days
Last update was in: September 20, 2017 7:47 pm
$135.31
Check Amazon
amazon.com

Ethernet-to-IR bridge

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.

Global Cache IP2IR iTach Wired TCP/IP to IR

Usually ships in 24 hours & Free shipping
Last update was in: September 20, 2017 7:47 pm
$92.68
Check Amazon
amazon.com

Global Cache IR Emitter

Usually ships in 24 hours & Free shipping
Last update was in: September 20, 2017 7:47 pm
$7.41
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amazon.com

They also have a WiFi-to-IR model but I haven’t tried it.

Global Cache WF2IR iTach Wi-Fi to IR

Usually ships in 24 hours & Free shipping
Last update was in: September 20, 2017 7:47 pm
$111.00
Check Amazon
amazon.com

QNAP NAS as NVR and VPN Server

I used to have a QNAP TS-231+ for over 2 years during which I wrote about my DIY home surveillance system. But I recently upgraded to the much more powerful QNAP TS-253A NAS.

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.

Conclusion

So these are all the various bits of kit that I have added to my Vera Plus right now. If you would like to learn step-by-step how to add each Z-Wave device to your Vera Plus, check out my detailed hands-on review of the Vera Plus. Got any questions, comments or feedback? Leave a comment below!

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