Home automation

Home automation is a trend that has been picking up steam for quite a while. Recent estimates by Marketwatch indicate that the market for home automation is projected to grow at over 11% through 2026 with a value of ~$49 billion. Up until relatively recently automation was limited to high-end homes and business, but thanks to increasing costs of electricity, decreasing costs of the involved technology, and the widespread use of mobile devices home automation is becoming more popular in the mass market.

What is home automation?

Hubitat home automation

At its core home automation serves to simplify life by automating everyday tasks. It can be as simple as turning on a light when a door opens, or a complex as the user can make it. Common types of home automation include: smart lighting, smart thermostats, smart door locks, video doorbells, and smart home security systems.

Typical systems will include a main hub (i.e. Smartthings, certain Alexa devices, Hubitat), any associate bridges (Phillips Hue bridge, Lutron Caseta bridge), the smart devices (motion sensors, light switches, smart bulbs, etc.), and the software. All of these components work together to create specific events for a given action. For example, when I arrive at home a series of events occurs. First, the hub checks the time. If I’m arriving after sunset the hub turns on specific lights. Second, the hub checks the outside temperature and sets the mode appropriately. Thirdly, the hub unlocks the door and disarms the security system. Lastly, if its after 10:00pm, a timer starts to begin our bedtime routine. Everything works behind the scenes to make life more comfortable.

Major players

SmartThings home automation

Within the last decade the market for home automation has seen an explosion in the number of different platforms available. Early on the commercial and home market was dominated by companies like Homeseer, Honeywell, and Vera. As automation became more popular, SmartThings, Wink, Vivint, Hubitat and others started jumping in. Unfortunately, due to the lack of a standard, the large number of players can lead to fragmentation.

Given that Alexa devices are now able to act as hubs, why would you purchase a dedicated home automation hub? In one word: flexibility. Alexa doesn’t have a z-wave radio, which closes off an enormous product category. Additionally, all major home automation hubs have the ability to add user-written apps and drivers to expand their device compatibility. Want to integrate with a device, but Alexa doesn’t have an app? Its likely that a community driver has been written by a member or the company and is available to load on a hub. Lastly, hubs will usually have a much more robust event (or rule) engine for scheduling automations.

Benefits and drawbacks

Benefit: Cost Savings

The best argument for automating the home is cost savings. For example, Ecobee estimates that upgrading to a smart thermostat saves up to 23% in annual energy costs. Nest thermostats save up to 15% on cooling and up to 12% on heating. A few adjustments in the setpoint can make a significant difference in the electric bill. Likewise, my electric company has the option to adjust the cooling setpoint during peak demand in the summer. This program lowers my utility bill and they send me a check at the end of the summer.

Additionally, some insurance companies will provide automation discounts. If you install a monitored system that provides a certificate you may qualify for a premium discount. I have a monitored burglar, smoke, and CO alarm through Noonlight; the discount essentially pays for the system.

Benefit: Safety

If planned out accordingly a good home automation system can improve the safety of your home. For example, my home has hardwired “dumb” smoke/CO detectors. My “dumb” smoke/CO detectors are now integrated and “smart” thanks to some nifty people on the forums. Even away from home I will receive alerts if the smoke alarms go off. If my family is home, a series of actions take place. First, the hub disarms the security system. Second, the hub unlocks the front door. Third, all lights turn on at full brightness. Fourth, the hub turns off the heating/cooling system. Lastly, Noonlight is notified and the fire department is called.

Additionally, what if you have a water leak? In most cases a water leak while away results in significant property damage and expense. Automating leak detection and response can pay for itself if you have even one major leak.

Benefit: Convenience

I’m a lazy individual. Pretty sure nobody will argue with that. If I can yell at Alexa to turn off a light and save walking 5 feet, I’ll do it. That being said, there are some practical uses to automation that extend beyond my laziness. For example, nobody likes stepping on Legos in the middle of the night. Additionally, its no fun guessing as to whether you’re going to step on another one. Solution: add a motion sensor with ambient lighting. Phillips Hue lights are great for this.

To consider another practical scenario, think about your fridge or chest freezer. How many people have you ran across that had to replace everything in the freezer because it quit working? There’s a solution for that: drop in a temperature probe that sends a notification if the temperature rises above a set threshold for a set period of time.

Drawback: Fragmentation

Earlier I mentioned that fragmentation is an issue with the large number of manufacturers. Essentially, this means that because no standard for interoperability has been set, each manufacturer is free to create their own proprietary system. For example, Ring automation systems do not work out of the box with SmartThings. Likewise, Nest doesn’t like to work out of the box with anything else at all. Generally, you will need to put some work into making one system work with another. However, just as it is a drawback, fragmentation can also open up fun and unique integrations.

Look at it this way; Ring is great at video doorbells, Nest is considered top notch in thermostats and smoke detectors, and Phillips Hue is considered a leader in lighting. Unfortunately, each system excels in its own niche but doesn’t really make for a true whole-home ecosystem with great flexibility.

Drawback: Reliability

A key issue with any DIY system is reliability. This can stem from simple issues with internet connectivity, integration issues between different components, or poorly designed event rules. In general, a self-designed system will never match up to a professionally monitored security system or a professionally installed home automation system. Part of the planning process needs to account for making sure the system “just works”. Some forums refer to the WAF–wife approval factor–it is real, and it is important. It can also put an end to any tech venture in a hurry. The best way to improve reliability is through planning.

Drawback: No tech support

Consider this: you have a whole-home system from ADT with an automation hub. A sensor stopped working. Automations are broken and the system is faulted. The solution? Call your technical support line with ADT. In contrast, if something in my system breaks, I am the tech support line. Sure, if a sensor is malfunctioning I can reach out to the manufacturer directly and see if a warranty replacement is available. For deep troubleshooting, though, I’m it. In my case that’s fine since I’m a fairly techy guy and enjoy perusing the forums. If you’re not technically inclined though…you may want to stick with Ring, Nest, or some other system that is built for the masses.

Planning your home automation system

Home Automation Planning

The most important step is to plan your system. I made the mistake early on of buying an expensive hub through my alarm company without doing my research. Sure, it seamlessly integrated with my alarm system and provided very basic automations, but the event engine was awful and my external integrations were very limited. Eventually integrations with Homekit were added, but again, I was limited only to what Apple allowed on Homekit. Furthermore, the Homekit to Honeywell integration (at the time) only exposed very basic lighting automations and alarm status; for true automations I had to set rules up in each system individually.

As a rule of thumb, the best smart home is the one that can’t be seen. You wouldn’t know it was a smart home by looking at it, since everything integrates seamlessly into the design. Automations just work naturally without any user intervention. Life is safer, easier, and more convenient without any effort.

What is your use for home automation?

What do plan on using automation for? Lighting automation? Thermostat settings? Security and safety? All of the above? Before going out a buying something, sit down and think about some things you would like to do. If you’re having a hard time coming up with ideas, start a habit tracker. Grab a notebook (or existing planner) and mark off the days of the week (or download this simple tracker). Track your home routine, including when you leave and arrive, as well as any activities. Be sure to include actions associated with the routine (i.e. wake at 6:30 and disarm the alarm, went to kitchen and started coffee). You’re looking for repetitive routines and actions.

Once you’ve determined your repetitive routines, think outside of the box and look at ways you can make those routines easier. For example, when you come home at night it would be nice to have the lights turn on. Likewise, why heat or cool an empty house? Set up a thermostat rule to adjust the setpoints while away so that the heat or AC is not running constantly while you are away. A true smart home almost seems to anticipate your activities and performs actions accordingly without any intervention.

Do you want professional monitoring?

A serious consideration: if you want to get rid of the fees associated with paying a security company like ADT or Fleenor for professional monitoring, it can be done. Be warned, however, that you are giving up the dedicated support associated with that company. Additionally, realize that most professional systems have multiple built-in redundancies in the event of power or communication failure. All of these can be overcome, and I’ll show you how I did it, but if something goes wrong…don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Konnected logo

As a benefit of building out your own security system…you have complete and total control over the components you put in, there are no contract fees, no service fees, and no hidden costs. I have had my system running now for over a year and have already came out ahead on cost compared to my previous alarm company. As a bonus, my current system is actually more reliable and has less false alarms.

If you decide to go all-in with a security system integration, you will have to choose your hub and components wisely. There are several options available, but in my specific case I went with Konnected. An added advantage with Konnected is the ability to work in tandem with an existing monitored alarm system. If you don’t feel comfortable ditching your alarm company and they are okay with Konnected, this is a good option.

Choose your home automation systems and standards

While each company may market its own hardware, for the most part you’ll come across three connectivity standards: Z-wave, Zigbee, and wireless. There are some limitations, as Ring, Lutron, and Nest all have proprietary systems that only work with the hardware made by those manufacturers. Phillips Hue products, while they use Zigbee protocols, only work with the Phillips Hue bridge. This is where planning is key. You want your system to be flexible enough to meet your needs and you want all the components to play nice.

If you’re willing to branch out a bit there are many community forums that have member-made integrations. While these integrations are not “officially” supported, they often fill in the gaps to make your system of choice more flexible.

Z-wave

One of the big three standards in automation communications is Z-wave (or Z-Wave+). For a decent explanation of z-wave communication protocols, see this article. In a nutshell, Z-wave devices create a mesh network from multiple connected devices. This network is self-healing, compatible with any z-wave device, and works with very little user input. A major advantage of Z-wave is that any device that uses z-wave, regardless of manufacturer, can talk to and integrate with any other z-wave device or controller. This is because the Z-wave standard is owned and operated by one company and all devices must adhere to the standards set by that company.

At the heart of the z-wave network is the controller. The controller does exactly what it sounds like: it controls all the devices in the mesh network. Many hubs will have multiple standards integrated (WiFi, Zigbee, and Z-wave). That being said, my personal experience has been that its best to stick with one standard for compatibility.

Currently you’ll see Z-wave in three flavors: Z-wave, Z-wave+, and soon to be released Z-Wave+ LR. The LR variant looks to boost range tremendously and gets rid of the mesh network completely (star topology). It also boosts the device cap to 2,000 and promises better reliability, speed, and battery life.

Zigbee

Zigbee is one of the other major home automation standards. Like Z-wave, Zigbee devices create a mesh network and the network is a little more forgiving. Unlike Z-wave, Zigbee networks can be massive (up to 65,000 devices). Also unlike Z-wave, Zigbee devices have a little less range making repeaters a critical component of a healthy Zigbee mesh. Another major difference is the lack of any one set standard, although this has begun to change with the introduction of the Zigbee Alliance. As an example, Phillips Hue lights use Zigbee as a networking standard, but don’t expect to grab a Hubitat or SmartThings hub and connect it straight to a Phillips Hue light strip.

One other consideration with Zigbee is the frequency at which it operates: 2.4 GHz. What else operates at that frequency? Like everything WiFi. Interference is a real possibility in connected homes and should be factored in.

WiFi

I think this standard is pretty self-explanatory. Of note, I personally discourage the use of Wifi if you plan on building out a large home automation network. I have 50+ devices on my home network currently. 20+ of these are on Wifi. On my automation hub I have over 70 devices, most of which are wireless or wired z-wave devices. There are several disadvantages to choosing Wifi devices:

  • These devices will compete for bandwidth with your other devices (streaming media, tablets, computers, etc.).
  • WiFi devices require more power; unless you are able to hardwire the device in, plan on replacing batteries often
  • A static IP address is a must unless you want to fix something daily. Z-wave and Zigbee networks handle this in the background without any user input once a device is included properly.
  • Most often, WiFi devices will go through a cloud vendor and do not work locally. If the internet or cloud vendor is down…the device is down.

Neutral or no Neutral?

Big question: if you intend to replace you light switches with smart switches, do you have a neutral wire? The answer will impact the products you can use, as most smart switches require a neutral wire. In general, older homes will not have a neutral wire, while newer homes will since it is required for code.

If you’re not sure…this is actually easy to figure out. Turn off the breaker to a light controlled by only one switch (i.e. don’t pick a 3-way to start with that has two switches controlling one light). You don’t have to turn off the breaker since you will not be doing anything but looking at the switch, but we are removing a faceplate and dealing with electricity; safety should always come first. Remove the faceplate from the switch and look at the switch. If you have a neutral, generally you will see 2 wires entering the box with black, white, and ground each. Black wires will connect to the switch and all whites will be wired together.

In contrast, if you don’t have a neutral you will generally only have one wire coming in and both the black and white wires are wired to the switch (i.e. both are hot). I say generally because I have seen some stupid things.

No neutral, now what?

Have to admit, I hate not having a neutral. You’ve got several options, including hiring an electrician to pull in a neutral. That gets expensive, and there are other options out there. Truthfully, the only thing you may miss out on is easy fan control (or anything that has a motor). Because fan motors have a straight on/off requirement smart switches will not work. A smart switch requires a tiny amount of current to stay connected and communicate with the hub; since a neutral wire always has a small amount of current that issue is solved in newer homes or remodels up to code. If you try to use a smart switch on a fan without a neutral it won’t work, you may cause a fire (you’ll burn out the motor), and I guarantee the WAF will be 0 (no more smart home for you).

Several companies have developed products with this problem in mind. Just look for the devices that say “no neutral required”.

Local versus Cloud Home Automation

Another consideration is local execution versus cloud execution. Local hubs (Hubitat, Homeseer, Vera) will perform actions without relying on the internet. Typically local hubs have faster response times. Cloud hubs (Ring, SmartThings) send events to the cloud before completing actions. As a side note, SmartThings does perform some actions locally on the Z-Wave/Zigbee network. However, most actions have some cloud component. As an end user this simply means that no internet means no automations. In many cases automation systems blend local and cloud execution.

Build it out

You’ve figured out what you want to automate. You’ve determined your hardware limitations (neutral or no neutral). The WAF is acceptable. Time to get to work. Since it means nothing to talk in general terms, I’ll detail the system I built out. It just works. My system is based on the following requirements:

  • I have a home built in the 90’s, so any switch I install must be able to operate without a neutral wire
  • I want to have a fully monitored security system that integrates completely with my smart home hub
  • Automations should be processed locally whenever possible
  • Everything should work as part of a full automation ecosystem; I will automate lights, heating/cooling, water valves, security system, etc.
  • The user interface will be through one app. I should not have to visit multiple apps to control different devices.
  • Voice control is preferable, but not required

I’ll go through my own setup to give you an example of how I use automation to simplify daily actions. I probably fall in the middle to upper end of the automation scale; most people will not go to my effort. On the other hand, there are also people out there that make my system look puny.

One other note: in an ideal world you will purchase everything up front. In a real world you’ll always be adding, tweaking, removing, replacing. I’m writing this assuming the ideal world, but follow the best practices for adding devices and you’ll end up with a solid system.

Equipment List

My system is built around the following core components:

  • Hubitat controller (C5)
    • Note that the C7 hub currently available will support 700 series devices with better range, battery life, and communication
  • Raspberry Pi4 running Node-RED for event automation
  • Logitech Harmony Elite Hub and Remote
  • Phillips Hue Bridge
  • Lutron Caseta Pro Bridge
    • Note that the Pro bridge is required for Hubitat integration. Usually you can pick one up off of Ebay.
  • Konnected Alarm Panel conversion
  • Ecobee Thermostats
  • Weatherflow personal weather station
    • I’ve got the original Air/Sky model. The Tempest system is a step above my current system, but both are great choices for personal weather stations. My experience has been that the forecast is spot on for my location.
  • Amazon Alexa devices (various) for voice control

I use the following accessories to trigger my automations and control home devices:

  • Lutron Caseta dimmers and Pico remotes
  • Aeotec Tri-sensor (includes motion, temperature, and humidity sensors)
    • A bonus with this sensor is that it can be recessed into the ceiling, reducing visibility
  • Phillips Hue light strips and Hue Blooms for under counter and accent lighting
  • Phillips Hue Play lights for entertainment lighting
  • Homeseer water detectors
  • Homeseer wireless contact sensors
  • Honeywell wired door and window contact sensors (from previous alarm panel)
  • GE Enbrigten Z-wave outlet

Get the hub up and running

Before you do anything else, get the hub started and on your network. I went with Hubitat; the initial learning curve is more than SmartThings but the local execution in my opinion is worth the extra work. Additionally, Hubitat has a immensely helpful community forum and a robust set of community apps and drivers. Finally, at $129 (on sale), you can’t beat the price for the value you get.

Hubitat main menu
Hubitat main menu

One thing you will not get with Hubitat is a fancy UI and dashboard. That being said, you do get local execution, a huge community forum, many user-written integrations to make just about anything work, and a rock-solid foundation for your system. I’ve used Hubitat for 3 years now and have not had any downtime. SmartThings users are very familiar with the cloud “incidents” that knock their hubs offline regularly.

Regardless of which hub you choose, follow the setup instructions and give it a static IP address on your network. Once your hub is online, move on to any bridges.

Set up any bridges (Phillips Hue, Lutron Caseta)

After getting the main hub online, set up any bridges. As with the main hub, assign each bridge a static IP address. Not assigning static IP addresses will lead to an unstable system and many headaches down the road. Be sure when planning the system you check and see if your hub can integrate with the bridge. Most hubs natively support Phillips Hue. Hubitat, however, does not natively support Lutron Caseta switches without a Pro bridge. The bridge purchased in-store is the consumer version and does not include telnet.

I went with separate bridges to control lighting. You do not have to do this; there are many device options out there that will accomplish the same effect as Hue or Lutron. I simply liked the available options made by Phillips, and Lutron dimmers do not require a neutral and are easy to install. Likewise, both integrations are solid with Hubitat.

Phillips Hue automation logo

Add devices

Adding devices for home automation requires a plan. If using Z-wave or Zigbee you will need to add devices in a specific order (ideally). When planning my system I went with Z-wave to avoid any interference from my WiFi network. Before getting started, I recommend reading this article from Hubitat on how to build a solid mesh network. If you went with a Zigbee network, you’ll find the Zigbee mesh to “usually” be more forgiving. If you have a hybrid Zigbee/Zwave/Wifi system follow best practices for each.

In an ideal world you would have every device purchased and planned out prior to installation. In a real world, you’ll be adding new devices over the space of months to years. However, most likely the bulk of devices will still be added early on during initial install. I found the following to be the easiest way to get up and running.

Add devices to the bridges (if you use them)

Start by adding devices to any bridges (if applicable). Once added to the bridges it is easy to pull in all the devices at one time to the hub (in the case of Hubitat). If using Lutron device order does not matter; each device connects directly to the hub. If using Phillips Hue, start from the middle and work your way out. Phillips Hue is a Zigbee product and will create a mesh network starting at the bridge.

Add Z-wave or Zigbee devices to the hub

I went with Z-wave devices for most of my network. To build a healthy mesh include hardwired devices first, starting with the device closest to the hub. Once you’ve added the hardwired devices, include battery powered devices (or endpoints) from the hub outwards. Additionally, make sure to include the device at its final location. If adding many devices, stop after 10 devices and wait for about 24 hours to let the mesh heal and stabilize. Trust me, it’s worth it. Remember that in a Z-wave mesh mains powered devices serve as routers/repeaters, while battery-powered devices do not pass anything on. Letting the network heal solidifies the routing and provides a stable framework.

When planning the mesh, make sure you are including enough mains-powered devices to allow for a healthy network. Note that with 700-series chips and Z-wave+LR this will become a thing of the past, as LR devices connect directly to the hub. Once everything is added and the mesh has stabilized, perform a z-wave repair and let it stabilize for 24 hours before starting any automations.

Device considerations

Something to consider when selecting your devices is device compatibility and interference. In general, mixing and matching devices should be okay, but you’ll still find numerous forum topics about some devices not playing well with others. In particular, it seems smart light bulbs can give the Zigbee/Z-wave mesh networks a fit. Before you buy something, check the forum for issues with it. Part of the reason I went with Phillips Hue and Lutron is because each company excels at its particular product line and their devices play well with my hub.

Set up automations

Hub is set up, bridges are powered and integrated, devices have been added. Now for the fun part. Every hub includes a event or rule engine in its included device page. For SmartThings you access this through the mobile app; for most other dedicated home automation hubs you access it through the WebUI in a browser.

Rule Machine

Rule Machine is Hubitat’s rule engine. While its not the only rule engine built in to Hubitat, it is the heart of the system. Using RM you can create any rule from simply turning a on a light on motion to complex, conditional actions based on multiple conditions. One word of caution: it is not a pretty press and go interface like Alexa or SmartThings with a guiding walkthrough to create your rule.

Home Automation Rule Machine
Hubitat Rule Machine

I recommend reading the introduction to RM to get a basic idea of what you’re using. I also recommend looking at this post on the forum to start wrapping your head around private Boolean. If you ever get stuck, reach out to your hub’s community forum and I guarantee you’ll find help. Just remember, be polite and realize that most of the guys on the forums answering your questions are people like you that have gone through the same learning curve.

What’s in a rule?

Rules (or automations) always consist of a trigger with an action. Triggers are usually unambiguous, i.e. a motion sensor reports “active” or a contact sensor reports “open”. Actions can be simply or extraordinarily complex. That’s part of the beauty of home automation. We’ll walk through a simple rule using rule machine.

Name the rule and define a trigger
  • Define the trigger

This rule will turn on lights when motion is detected. In this example, our trigger will be when motion is detected on the Living Room Sensor. In RM, the capability is “motion”, select the motion sensor, and select whether to fire when motion reports “active” or “inactive”. You can add as many trigger events as needed. For example, you can have two motion sensors fire the rule on opposite ends of the room. If motion is detected on either sensor, the lights turn on.

Define the action
  • Rule machine step 4

Define the action next. When the motion sensor is active we want to turn on the lights. In RM we want to “Control Switches, Push Buttons” and “Turn switches on”. Select the light to turn on and hit “Done with this action”. Now, we also want to automatically turn off the lights when the room is empty or motion is not detected. To do this we’ll add a wait condition. So under action type, add “Delay or repeat actions, wait” and then select an action of “Wait for events”. This is a trigger to move on to the next part of the rule, so the capability is the same as the original trigger, but motion is “inactive”. To complete the action, add another “Control Switches, Push Buttons” step to turn the light off.

Alternate methods

Part of what makes RM so powerful is the flexibility. You can use the above rule exactly as written, or you can write it a little differently using conditional actions. The trigger is still the same. The action would instead use condition expressions. If Living Room Sensor detects “active”, THEN turn “on” Living Room Main Lights, ELSE IF Living Room Sensor detects “inactive”, THEN turn “off” Living Room Main Lights”, END IF. It’ll do the same thing.

KISS

Remember when I said that rules could be as simple or as complex as needed? One thing to keep in mind is to avoid overly complicating things. A common fallacy of building out entire home ecosystems is that it is easy to start going down the rabbit hole and creating increasingly complex rules. Frankly, this can create a mess, unstable automations, and make it harder to troubleshoot any problems. Is it just a simple automation? Use the Simple Automation Rules app in Hubitat rather than RM.

My home automation extras

Okay, so getting to this point would get you the bulk of your automation needs. I may have went overboard a little bit and took it further. Remember, I want a whole-home automation ecosystem that works seamlessly. I also hate subscription fees and exorbitant service costs for an alarm system. These are obviously completely optional, as just adding a hub and the associated lighting accessories will work just fine.

I’m not going to go step-by-step into how I set each of these up; if you’re curious shoot me a message or a comment. These are more to serve as ideas to get the brain box going.

Safety and Security in home automation

After increasing costs, unreliability, and no ability to integrate sensors into Hubitat, I ditched my alarm company. Don’t get me wrong, the system did exactly what it was designed to do, but not what I wanted it to do. Additionally, the service costs to replace a $5 contact sensor were getting to be stupid. I did have to do some work to get it to the level I wanted it.

Hubitat includes Hubitat Safety Monitor as a built-in app, which with the right equipment can act as a self-monitored security system.

Additionally, while nice the costs of smart smoke detectors (Nest and First alert I’m looking at you) are just stupid. I’ve got mine integrated using off-the-shelf detectors from Kiddie.

Security System Takeover

Konnected makes a pretty nifty board that will integrate all of your wired alarm sensors into your smart home platform. Currently they integrate with SmartThings, Home Assistant, Hubitat, and openHAB. Envisalink is another option that integrates with Hubitat, and there are other options out there as well. Konnected worked best in my case. If you’re nervous about completely cutting ties with your alarm company, Konnected does allow you to install the board in parallel with the alarm company. That means that you will still be able to integrate all wired sensors into your hub and still have monitored service.

Home automation alarm system

The drawback to keeping your existing alarm company in this particular case is that Konnected will not work with any wireless sensors. These are proprietary to the alarm company and only work with their boards. As such, they won’t show in the hub device list. Additionally, if you want to add a nice touchscreen interface, you’ll have to keep the original alarm panel separate.

Complete the sensors (if you have wired and wireless)

In our home our sensors were wired and wireless. You find that you can purchase replacement sensors much cheaper than you can through the alarm company. For example, recessed contact sensors run about $9 per sensor from Amazon. I can replace wired motion sensors for $13. Since I had to replace the half dozen or so wireless contacts around the house, I found that Homeseer sensors were ideal. These sensors paired easily, came from a company with experience in home automation, and used batteries that are easy to find. Additionally, these sensors included a tamper switch in the event somebody tries to take or alter the sensor. Most monitored systems will have tamper alerts to let you know someone is trying to alter your system.

Ensure redundancy

If you take over your own monitoring, make sure that you have multiple redundancies built in. Just like a professional system, you want to make sure in the case of power or internet/phone failure your system still works. Your system does absolutely no good if someone can cut the internet line or power line to knock it out. Konnected sells battery backup kits for their devices. Alternatively, most alarm systems already have a battery backup installed; most of the time you can continue using the battery backup already present by following appropriate wiring instructions.

For communications, make sure your network equipment (router, modem, hub, etc.) is on a battery backup as well. Even if the power is out you want the system to still work and communicate. On the off chance the internet is out, Netgear makes a cellular modem that can serve as a backup communications method. It takes some work to set it up (you don’t want to stream the home network through it unless necessary), but it ensures communications even without active internet.

Professional Monitoring

Optionally, you can still have your system professionally monitored. Konnected partners with Noonlight to offer the same services that a full company offers, but at only $9/month. Additionally, once you have your system completed and integrated, they will provide a certificate for the insurance company after a successful test. Using Hubitat Safety Monitor, you can choose exactly what you want monitored and through rules you can even specify when you want monitoring active.

An added benefit to using Noonlight for home is the app. The app acts simply as a panic button on your mobile device; press the button and they send help to your device’s location.

What about that convenient keypad?

Okay, everybody likes a physical keypad. Plus, you do want to be able to allow housesitters or family to be able to disarm the system if needed. So how do you add a keypad? You can continue to use existing keypads with Konnected; they’ll still work. User codes are added through HSM and you won’t notice any difference in basic functionality. Alternatively…make a smart home panel. Pinterest has plenty of examples, but Amazon Fire tablets are great for this with a little work and they can be powered with the existing alarm keypad wiring.

Home automation panel
Smart Panel

Most hubs will have a dashboard designer built in or available through integrations. Hubitat has a dashboard designer that gets plenty of mixed reviews from community members, but personally I find it more than adequate for my needs. Again, it can be enhanced through various community-created apps. I’ve been able to display security system status, presence, hub mode, weather information, and safety information. This is in addition to being able to control all my smart devices from here (if needed). Leave a comment if interested in how to make a panel like this.

Make those dumb smoke alarms smart

Most homes will now have hardwired smoke detectors throughout the house. If you don’t have hardwired, I would strongly recommend adding hardwired if that is an option. I know someone that didn’t check the batteries regularly and paid the price with his house; fortunately not with his life. That being said, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to get those notifications while away of trouble?

Thanks again to some nifty people, this is also possible. Nest and First alert smart alarms are great, but they’re also crazy expensive. I’ve got 9 alarms throughout the house, so that would get a little nuts on cost. The equipment is simple: Kiddie CO Relay module, Kiddie Smoke Relay module, and two contact sensors with a dry contact.

Installation
Smart “dumb” alarms

The process is equally simple; I find a 2 gang deep junction box is best for fitting everything in. I’ve got a drop ceiling near one alarm, which makes the process even more simple. Essentially, you’re going to wire in the two relays to the alarm as directed on the relay instructions. Using one contact sensor for each relay, you’re going to wire the relay outputs into the dry contact sensor. In the hub device page, you’ll include each contact sensor like normal. An additional step I completed was to make sure the device attributes were for a smoke/co detector rather than a contact sensor.

Once included, you can create notifications and monitoring alerts for your alarms. If, like me, you have hardwired alarms but also need alarms in places you can’t pull a wire to, Kiddie makes a wired/wireless wire-free interconnect that seamlessly integrates. If any battery-powered device triggers it will also trigger the hardwired devices (as long as you have the wire-free interconnect hub hardwired in) and your home automation hub.

What about water?

Another bright spot for home automation: leak detection. I’ve got 3 leak detectors placed: at the water heater, below in the HVAC drain pan upstairs, and in a trouble spot that has had frozen plumbing a couple of times. Currently, I do not have a motorized shutoff valve on my water main entering the house. That is soon to come. However, I do have notifications set up to alert me of water in any of those locations. If in the HVAC drain pan, it also shuts down the system and lets me know. Once a z-wave valve is installed, water at any location will trigger a shutoff of the main water supply.

Going all-in with event automation using node-RED

I’m a visual person. While Rule Machine is great, I found it a little hard to wrap my head around at times. As my device numbers grew, it also became harder to organize and keep my rule relationships straight. That’s were node-RED comes in. Node-RED is a visual-based programming tool for event automations. Programmers use it for many projects other than home automation since NR can literally automate anything it has a node for. Because I find NR to be so useful, I’ve got a separate library (note you must be a register user to view) and tutorial on the site that I’ll refer you to.

node-red logo

“Alexa, watch TV”

Smart Home Assistants are here to stay. With all of the devices I’ve got, it only makes sense to automate some functions by speech. Most home automation hubs have Alexa integration built in. This allows you to create two-way integrations with Alexa and the hub. In an example scenario, I can tell Alexa to watch Roku. In this rule, Alexa will turn on our entertainment system through the Harmony hub, turn off the living room lights and kitchen lights, and if after sunset will check to make sure our Phillips Hue ambience lights are on for low-level lighting.

As another, more recent example, I’ve also got Alexa integrated with Hubitat and node-RED to speak weather alerts. Depending on the severity of the alert, notifications and announcements are scaled. A simple special weather statement, for example, just gets a push alert sent to our phones and a spoken announcement on our Echo show if we’re awake. In contrast, a severe alert like a tornado warning gets a high priority push notification sent to our phones, a spoken announcement on all Alexa devices regardless of time, and a chime on our door chime.

Wrapping up

Hopefully this looong read gave you both some insight and ideas. For more ideas, head over to my flow library for node-RED to get some examples of how I use all my systems to make our home smart. If you have any questions, feel free to drop a comment and I’ll walk you through it.

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