in Home Automation

So, tell me about this home automation thing.

I was asked two related questions yesterday:

How much do I need to spend on home automation?


What can your house actually do, anyway?

The answer to the first question is nothing. Nobody needs home automation. How much you want to spend, however, is related to the second question. What can my house do, and how badly do you want any of the same capabilities? I promised to detail what we have running to inform their decisions about how far they want to take things.

A word of warning though: home automation is one of those technologies that once you start using it, you quickly wonder how you lived without it.

LightwaveRF is where I started. It is still the cheapest and easiest system I’ve seen for retrofitting automation to a house using the existing lighting wiring. Simply pop off the existing switch plate and wire things up to the terminals on the Lightwave device. In some cases you’ll need to enlarge the backbox to accomodate the radio component, and multi-way wiring (landing lights, long corridors) can be fiddly.  They do power sockets for lamps – these are very easy to use as you just plug the existing plug into the Lightwave socket – and relays for switching things like blinds. We use one of these to control the bedroom curtains.

They have a range of heating controls now, although as they were brand new when I was investigating the technology, we went with a different more tested solution.

As I previously noted, the LightwaveRF devices have some reliability issues due to the way their protocol works, and their controller app can be a little clunky. They introduced Alexa support just as I started migrating away from them as a platform, and this too seemed less reliable than other solutions.

My wall light switches are all still LightwaveRF devices, and I don’t anticipate changing them for a while as they are perfectly servicable. All the power sockets where I had Lightwave sockets have been replaced with…

Samsung SmartThings is the brand that covers Samsung’s smart home hub – the SmartThings Hub – and their range of sockets, switches and sensors. The hub is excellent – able to control Z-Wave and Zigbee devices – as well as being able to send messages to dozens of other devices on the same network. The software – on iOS and Android – is excellent, really well thought out and highly configurable. Further, for those who want to hack at it a little, they have a comprehensive and powerful online IDE for further configuration. You can write snippets of Java to control things.

I’m using SmartThings to control power sockets, door locks, motion sensors, our Sonos devices and more. The hub monitors the state of our mobile phones to know when we arrive and leave – and automate lights, locks and alarms accordingly. If not for the expense of Z-Wave light switches I’d probably not have any Lightwave devices left.

The Ring doorbell has an intercom, motion sensor, and fish-eye lense on an HD camera, and is backed by cloud storage for the video and a smart phone app that lets you talk to the person at the door no matter where you are. It integrates with other systems via IFTTT to permit scripted responses to motion and button pushes. (It’s also fun to edit together video of all the people waiting at the door when arriving at parties.)

More than once when postie was delivering something that needed to be signed for, we have been able to talk to him via the Ring app, and ask him to leave it in a safe place for us. Previously that would have ended in a schlepp to the post office to collect a parcel.

Yale? The door lock people? Yup. Not so long ago Yale entered the smart home arena with a series of smart door locks. This is an area where the UK has much less choice than the US, Yale are one of very few manufacturers supporting the UK market with this kind of technology.

We have their Keyless Connected Smart Lock along with the Z-Wave module that allows the SmartThings hub to talk to it. Combined with the Ring notification and intercom, we can talk to postie, unlock the front door so he can leave something in the lobby, then lock it again. (The internal door to the rest of the house remains locked!)

The lock can report status to the hub, and can be configured with key card, fob or code entry for different people at different times. That means the cleaners can get in on their day during certain hours, but not at other times, for example.

HoneyWell’s evohome range of thermostats, hot water and central heating controllers are probably not the most advanced technology today but they were the most well tested at the time I was installing things. This is a recurring theme in home automation today – the early adopter will end up replacing kit as new technology surpasses the old. Entering the world of home automation later means you can reap the benefit of the pioneers’ mistakes and often have a more integrated, less hacky system.

That said, evohome is quite decent, although not without some limitations. Their integration with the network is a bit of an afterthought, and their kit is not really equipped to deal with large houses with more than about 8 zones. We had to install two of their “gateway” devices to mitigate this. After some initial teething problems due to RF range (another common home automation complaint) the system has been rock solid for three years.

The primary benefit for a large house is being able to individually heat each room – or not – depending on occupancy. Integration with systems like IFTTT means it can respond to our location, turning heat down when we leave, and back up when we get home.

Alexa integration means we can now control room temperate with our voice, which is proving useful already:

Alexa, set the living room heat to 20 degrees.

We introduced Alexa to the house in October when Amazon first launched the Echo Dot in the UK. She – and yes, we do refer to “her” as “she” – is the reason I migrated much of our technology to SmartThings as, at launch, there was no Alexa integration for LightwaveRF.

I’ve written previously about some of the frustrations of using Alexa, but the benefits far outweigh the niggles. Any devices that exists in SmartThings can be controlled via voice in Alexa:

Alexa, turn on the living room.

As can SmartThings “routines” – sequences of switch changes that can be grouped together:

Alexa, turn on “Good Night”.

But there is more – Alexa’s capabilities are extended via “Skills” – additional functionality written by third parties that you install via the associated smartphone app. Some of the skills we’ve enabled:

Ever in that situation when you’re walking in from the car carrying a bunch of stuff and can’t reach the handle or keys to lock it?

Alexa, ask BMW to lock my doors.

Also, turn on the climate control, flash headlights, check status of the locks, and many other features. If you have a recent model with Connected Drive you’ll be able to do at least some of these things. The later the model the more you can play with.

We have two Neato Botvac Connected devices – one for each floor. I have utterly failed to stop calling them Roombas.

Alexa, ask Neato to start cleaning.

She knows we have two and is smart enough to ask which one. Our Neatos have silly names: Consuela and Codsworth. Don’t ask.

Mmmm. Takeaways. You can’t order an entire meal from Just Eat using Alexa, that would be labourious. If you’ve placed an order before you can get it delivered again:

Alexa, ask Just Eat to re-order Chinese.

and nag it when you’re impatient:

Alexa, ask Just Eat where’s my food?

It won’t arrive any faster though.

We have a few other systems in the house, Sonos (with Spotify), Plex, various controllers for RGB lights, and of course multiple Raspberry Pi computers running lots of different Linux-based scripts. The above technologies cover the core of our home automation today and for light switches I still thing LightwaveRF is a good place to start.

I know I spend more time hacking at this stuff than most people would be comfortable with. Where there is not official Alexa support for Sonos (yet!) I’ve hacked together my own. The state of home automation is improving week by week – CES has just happened and a bunch more systems are about to be released. We may even get a decent system that integrates with Apple’s Homekit to let Siri control the house in a meaningful way.

It’s getting better all the time, which is the double-edged sword: the longer you wait the less hacky and better integrated it’ll be, but if you want some of the benefits today you’ll have to be prepared for some clunkiness as well as the need to spend money again in a few years.