turned-on charcoal Google Home Mini and smartphone

The best smart home is one that isn’t seen and just works. You want a smart home that will complete automations without you having to think about it, and those automations will fit your routine and style. Sure, it’s cool to have a few smart bulbs around and impress everyone by saying “hey Alexa, dim the lights” or “hey Alexa, turn on the TV”. But the real benefits come when you start using your routines to save you money, improve your home safety, and make life easier. We’ll go into setting up the a smart home buildout that “just works”.

What’s the goal?

Before you even start going down the rabbit hole, stop and plan out what you want to accomplish. By that, I mean do you want to just look cool, save money, add safety features, add convenience, or all of the above? What you want to do will determine how much you’re going to need to invest as well as what you will need to buy. Think about your day and typical routines at home; your automations should work with those routines and run in the background.

You should also consider connectivity. By that I mean how do the devices communicate with each other. IoT devices typically communicate via z-wave, zigbee, wifi, or bluetooth. If you only need a few devices wifi is just fine, but if you’re considering adding quite a few I recommend a dedicated IoT hub with z-wave or zigbee to avoid congestion on your home wifi network.

A basic, entry-level setup that will “just work”

If you want a basic setup that will just work with little to no maintenance, is easy to set up, and has a clean user experience, start with any Alexa-enabled device. Most homes at this point likely have an Echo or Alexa-enabled device already. As a rule of thumb, I recommend sticking with companies that are experts at what they do. For example, Phillips owns and markets the Hue lighting system. While somewhat on the higher end of the pricing side, you get a wide variety of lighting options with a rock-solid system. Likewise, Lutron markets the Caséta system that is specifically targeted to in-wall switches. Again, you get a rock-solid system with options that will work for just about anybody.

Core components

Let’s start with the core components that you will need regardless of the end goal. In order to drive your automations and tie all your smart devices together you will need a hub or home assistant. Since we’re staying with simple, I’d go with a home assistant. In particular I’d stick with an Amazon Echo device. Alexa has many skills that will integrate all major IoT brands into your app. Others include Google Home, Smartthings, Hubitat, and others.

Add-ons

Next, grab your endpoints. These are all the sensors and devices that will drive the automations or be automated. I’ll make a few recommendations.

Lighting

smart home lighting

Start with a Phillips Hue starter kit. You’ll want the bridge and some lighting. Phillips is a little flexible here; if you want to go all in with Phillips only and you’re going to want to control existing ceiling light fixtures you can install switch modules. The catch is you have to have Hue bulbs in all of those fixtures. That gets expensive in a hurry. Another note about using smart bulbs: if on a switch, the switch has to stay on for them to work. Turn off the switch, no more smart bulb.

As an alternative, if you plan on controlling switched lights, consider a Lutron Caséta bridge. You should also consider Lutron if your switches don’t have a neutral wire (not uncommon in older homes). You can also grab both Hue and Lutron and use both.

Thermostats

Automating your AC will almost always save you money. On average, switching to a smart thermostat saves up to 15% in heating and cooling costs over a year. If you’re only going with Alexa as a home hub, Amazon makes their own very reasonably priced thermostat that integrates seamlessly with Alexa. If you can spend a little more, Nest makes a top-rated thermostat that learns your habits and patterns to save you energy. Ecobee and Honeywell also have their own product offers. If you’ve got a home that has warm and cool spots, I recommend going with a thermostat that can pair with a remote sensor to help even out those pockets.

Sensors

You don’t need sensors if you only want basic thermostat learning and no lighting automations outside of set schedules. However, you do need sensors if you want motion-, temperature-, or presence-activated automations. For a true smart home, sensors and information drive the system and make it truly a part of everyday life. You’ll need to decide if these sensors are going to be part of a security system or if they’re just to drive automations. If they’re present for automations only, stick with Hue motion sensors. They’ll do the job. If, however, you want to improve home security, go with Ring motion sensors.

Security and Safety

Lastly, because this is a sometimes-contentious topic, comes home security and safety. You’ll see a lot of forums adamantly recommend only using a professional monitoring service for home security. While that is, and will remain, the gold-standard, that also gets to be very pricey. In the choice of no security or some security, some security is better than none. In this case, the no-brainer is Ring. With Ring you’re going to be able to grab motion sensors, contact sensors, security cameras, keypads, key-fobs, and anything else a full service system would have including central monitoring. However, be prepared to pay a pretty penny for it.

Benefits and Drawbacks

There are some distinct benefits and drawbacks to setting up your smart home in this manner. Let’s start with the benefits.

The good

  • You’re getting mature, fully-developed products designed for the masses.
  • The user interface is designed to be accessible to a wide range of people and as such is usually “dummy” proof
  • Support and help for these products is robust and easy to work with
  • Simple routines are easy to set up

The potentially bad

  • All products are usually cloud-based; no internet means no automations in most cases
  • Again, because of the cloud-based architecture, if a single corporate server goes down, no automations will run on any device that relies on that server
  • Complex routines and automations are not always possible
  • If one company decides to stop supporting a product or integration, that product typically stops working altogether (think Nest and Amazon…they stopped talking to each other for a while because of corporate competition)
  • Because products are designed to work with the broadest array of people, typically you can’t get very original with your automations
  • Subscriptions. Many IoT manufactures (*cough*Ring*cough*) charge subscription fees for “premium” services

Routine Design and Implementation

You’ve got your gear, set it up, and are ready to automate something. But what? Remember what I said earlier: planning is key. If you did that, you should have started thinking about some things that would make your life easier or more convenient. I’m not going to tell you how to automate something; my experience has been that it is best to just dive in a play with the app and learn by doing. But, I’ll give you some examples. It is important to note that for every “on” automation, you need to create an “off” automation.

Automate your AC

An easy starting point is heating and cooling. Start by creating a routine that adjusts your thermostat to use less energy on heating and cooling while you’re away. Thanks to geofencing, you can tell it to turn on prior to arriving home so you’re coming home to a cozy home.

Ambient lighting

A lit home is a cozy home. If you have some light strips or light bars, create an automation to have them turn on to a scene in the Hue app at sunset. Alternatively, have the lights turn on if you arrive home at night so you don’t walk in to a dark home.

Auto-arm/disarm

Occasionally everyone forgets to arm the security system. Build a routine that does it for you. Either when you exit the geofence, or at a certain time every night, make a routine that automatically sets the alarm and secures your home.

Stepping it up

Okey doke, that’s the simple version. I can’t just leave it at that. I’m personally not a fan of the cloud or the possibility that everything will stop working if the internet decides to go out. And it has a few times recently. For the most part, everything still works as designed because my automations run locally. A benefit to building out a little more advanced system is the ability to really dig in a customize those automations and created complex routines that mold to your lifestyle.

Hardware

Core components

  • Hubitat home automation hub
    • The automation hub ties in all my sensors, Lutron switches, and contact sensors that use Z-wave, Zigbee, or Wi-Fi. Unless unavoidable, I steer clear of Wi-Fi devices due to high battery consumption and network congestion.
  • Phillips Hue Bridge
  • Lutron Caséta Bridge
  • Raspberry Pi4B
  • Konnected Pro security boards

Lighting

  • Phillips Hue Lightstrips
  • Phillips Hue Light Bars
  • Phillips Hue Blooms
  • Phillips Hue bulbs
  • Lutron Caséta dimmers
  • Lutron Caséta Pico remotes
  • GE/Jasco in-wall z-wave outlets

Sensors/Security

  • Aeotec Tri-sensors (z-wave)
  • Homeseer Contact sensors (z-wave)
  • Honeywell recessed window/door sensors (hardwired)
  • Honeywell PIR motion sensors (hardwired)
  • Kiddie wireless smoke detectors
  • Regular “dumb” hardwired smoke/CO detectors (made “smart”)
  • Ring video doorbell
  • Homeseer leak detectors
  • Weatherflow Tempest

Heating/Cooling

  • Ecobee thermostats
  • Ecobee remote sensors

User Interface

  • Amazon Fire 8 Tablets
  • Amazon Echo Shows

Software

  • Node-RED
  • Fully Kiosk Browser (free version)
  • Life 360 (mobile presence app)

Extras

These are not integrated into the home, but still “fill out” the system as a whole.

  • Amcrest NVR
  • Amcrest POE cameras (various)
  • HDMI-coaxial signal converter

I’ve also got a beefed-up home network with battery backup; all of my POE-enabled devices are on this battery backup in the event of a power failure (which is rare in our location).

Tying it all together

Allright, that was a lot of crap. So how does it work?

Tying in the endpoints

This should make sense in the end but stay with me. A graphic best demonstrates the linking.

Smart home automation linkages

Okay, so to summarize how everything is linked, Phillips hardware is linked to the Hue bridge. Lutron hardware to the Lutron bridge. My old, hardwired security sensors from the professional installer were shifted to the Konnected boards. Those external systems are all linked with the Hubitat hub. All other sensors and endpoints are z-wave or have a direct integration to the Hubitat hub. Because the processing power of the hub is limited, all events and commands are pulled into Node-RED running on a Raspberry Pi. The Hue bridge is also directly linked to Node-RED (only because a set of nodes exists that makes it more convenient). Node-RED executes all automations and delivers all notifications to user displays and mobile devices. Hubitat sends dashboard displays to the fire tablets that are running Fully Kiosk to present a pretty user interface.

Why do it this way?

With a few exceptions, all my automations and devices are processed locally. What that means is that if I have no incoming internet or a remote server is down, I can still operate my devices. The current exceptions are my Ecobee thermostats and any notifications that rely on external sources. Another reason: no subscriptions. The only subscription I have is a small (like $9) fee to Noonlight to centrally monitor my security system.

Another key reason is customization. If I can come up with an automation, I can do it. Doesn’t matter how complex. As an example:

node-red smart home sequences

The above image is part of my Node-RED setup to control arming and disarming when we leave or arrive. It performs specific arming/disarming, lighting, HVAC, and lock actions when we leave or arrive. I’ve also got sequences for lighting when we get up in the middle of the night, HVAC control to improve my utility bills, and basic backup and maintenance tasks for this website.

Pros

  • I can create extremely complex automations that fit my lifestyle
  • I am only limited by my creativity and budget
  • Mostly local execution; no internet, no problem
  • No subscription fees (with the exception of a $9 monitoring fee that is optional
  • Wide range of hardware endpoints to choose from

Cons

  • I am the IT desk; something breaks, its on me to fix
  • A little bit of a learning curve exists versus out-of-the-box kits

Other Considerations

Some other, final considerations involve securing your devices. I won’t go into detail here, but you can see this post for a more in-depth discussion of network security. In a nutshell, IoT devices can be a target for hackers as they are often not updated and, in the case of cameras, are often left with the default password enabled. At a bare minimum, make sure you change all your default passwords to something complex and ideally unique for each device. If possible, it also doesn’t hurt to place IoT devices on their own, separate network.

And…SAF. Spousal approval factor. Make sure your spouse is okay with what you’re doing. ‘Cause sure as s**t when something breaks you’re going to hear about it. Been there, done that.

Zack
Author: Zack

Pharmacist, tech guy, pianist, lover of beer, gamer, beach bum. Probably missed something. Just assume I'm into a little bit of everything.

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