in Home Automation

Home Automation Today

After my summary post on the various systems I have in the house – and their varying levels of complexiy – Alex posted this response:

Alex Shearer on Facebook

Alex raises a good point. Not that he’s a simpleton, that seems a little unfair, but that it would be useful to understand where to start today. Would I make the same technology choices based on the kit that is available to buy right now – three years after I started?

The answer is: mostly yes.

Heating

Let’s start with heating. There are a few more generally available heating control automation systems in the UK today: Hive, Nest, Honeywell Evohome, Tado and Lightwave.

Most houses in the UK will have a single thermostat controlling their heating system. One sensor (usually somewhere singularly unhelpful like a drafty hallway) with one dial controls the heat demand for every radiator in the house. It is also common to have a separate hot water tank – the heating of which can be controlled separately usually via a clunky timer hidden in the airing cupboard.

There is no doubt that the Nest thermostat is the most beautiful potential replacement. The interface is intuitive and clear, and the physical device is very pleasing to turn and click. However it has a big downside: it is a drop in replacement for just that single thermostat I mentioned earlier. The £250 kit has no concept of zones as all it can do is intelligently learn how to heat your entire house as one entity. You’ll still be adjusting radiators separately if you want to change temperature in just one room. You can add a Nest to every room – along with associated Heat Link hardware to deal with the radiators – but it’s not really designed with this in mind, and who has £250 to spend per room?! Hive has a similar limitation.

Tado, Lightwave and Evohome all solve this problem in a way far more suitable for retrofitting the average UK home. They have a central control device (with Smartphone integration) that communicates via RF to a separate thermostatic valve on each radiator. These devices replace the standard valve you currently have to turn to adjust radiator temperature.

For me, Honeywell Evohome still has the edge here. Partly because they’ve been in heating controls for longer – Lightwave’s entry is very immature and a number of plumbers I’ve spoken to are not comfortable with it yet. Tado looks like a good system, although I don’t have any direct experience of it.

Honeywell can control 12 zones from a single controller, integrate with IFTTT, has the best smartphone app of any of the systems I’ve seen, is comparable in price to most and is the “safest” bet for finding a plumber who’ll be happy to install it.

Look to spend around £450 to get the base controller (touch screen with wifi control) plus hot water control and valves for 4 radiators. £550 for the same but for 8 radiators. Additional packs of valves available for around £160 per pack of four.

Our house has a stupid number of radiators, so we ended up having to create two zones (upstairs and downstairs). That meant two controllers, the hot water kit, plus 16 radiator valves. Total spend – not including a plumber – just under a thousand pounds.

Lamps

The quickest and easiest way to start with lighting is to look at the rooms where you have lamps plugged into mains sockets. At most DIY stores (B&Q, Screwfix) you can spend less than 30 quid for three or four sockets and a remote control. Unplug the lamp, plug it into the socket, plug the socket into the wall. Job done.  You now have remote controlled lamps!

That’s not really automation though. So, next step, get yourself some sockets that can be controlled by a central controller and your smartphone. I really recommend the Samsung SmartThings Hub as your first step here. The starter kit is relatively inexpensive (£200 including a bunch of sensors and a socket) and you can pick up additional on/off sockets for about £15 each in bulk.

With the Hub configured, and your smartphones added to it, you’ll get geo-location based lights on/off, sunrise/sunset automation, and if you choose to add Alexa (Echo Dot, £50) really easy to use voice control.

Being able to dim the sockets will cost you about £30 per socket.  This is worth doing in rooms like the bedroom where you might want gentle light without the full glare, or the ability to slowly fade up as an alarm.

(In case you hadn’t guessed, I like Vesternet for their wide selection of Home Automation gear and great technical guides.)

Light Switches

Here’s where the conflict between technical setup, aesthetic sensibility and cost begins. The light switches that are compatible with the Z-Wave and Zigbee protocols the SmartThing Hub uses are more complex to install and uglier than the LightwaveRF kit:

Would you rather have this?

Or this?

The LightwaveRF kit has a range of light switches to fit most decors, are very simple to install – as they are drop in replacements for standard switches – but don’t report state to a controller, so if you turn them on by pressing them, the controller doesn’t know. They can also suffer some interference, and don’t work directly with the SmartThings Hub. I’m using a separate bit of kit and some code I’ve hacked together to join these up.

Lightwave has a hub to permit smartphone control, but now you’re running two hubs (SmartThings and Lightwave) to control your devices.

So, if you can put up with the ugly switches, and don’t mind spending upwards of £50 to £100 per switch, you can put Z-Wave relays behind the switches. That way the lovely SmartThings hub will work for you along with Alexa. This guy blogged his experience putting it in himself – if I were doing this again I’d probably find an installer to do all this for me. Assuming I could find some light switches the design of which met with wifey approval!

So in summary:

  • Spend around £1000 on Honeywell Evohome kit, plus the cost of the plumber.
    Or, spend just £250 for a Nest if you don’t want multi-zone control.
    If money is no object, install a Nest and Heat Link in every room for learning and multi-zone control – that’s £250 per room and a vastly more complicated setup.
  • Spend £500 or so on SmartThings starter kit and Z-Wave sockets.
    This’ll get you control of all your lamps. Add £30 per motion sensor to get motion based control of zones (as with my kitchen and hall).
  • Spend around three grand on retrofitting light switches + cost of installer.
    If you go with Lightwave it’ll be a bit cheaper but more fiddly to integrate. If you go with Z-Wave it’ll be a much neater system once installed, but that install will be more complex.
  • Spend a few hundred quid placing Echo Dot devices around the house. (£50 each)
  • Spend £160 on the Ring Pro video doorbell.
    I’ve not written this up yet, but it is a great little device.
  • Spend £90 per smoke alarm location on Nest Protect.
    Again, I need to write this up. They’ve had some teething problems but are decent.
  • Spend £150 on the Logitech Harmony Hub and remote for anywhere you have a screen and multiple devices (TV/Cinema Room). I love these devices – there is simply nothing else that competes at this level for media control.

(All figures based on a 5 bed house with rooms with multiple switches, and complex three or four way switches like downstairs/upstairs landing.)

I’ve not yet seen any good HomeKit hardware (that being the stuff that is directly controllable with Siri) but all the stuff I’ve mentioned has good iOS apps and will integrate with Alexa for excellent voice control. Unless a bunch of great kit comes out soon it does feel like Apple missed the boat here. At least one company is releasing a hub that connects all other protocols to HomeKit, but that may be too little too late if Alexa continues to dominate.

And obviously, the main recommendation for Alex remains: build your cinema room, and invest in the Playstation 4 Pro, PS VR, and a copy of Star Wars: Battlefront.