Smart Home

  • Posted on: 29 December 2016
  • By: arunvishnu

Why a Smart Home?

My intention of making my home smart is to provide me and my family comfort, security, energy efficiency (low operating costs) and convenience at all times, regardless of whether anyone is home or not - the same benefits that technology and personal computing have brought to us over the past few years — convenience and savings of time, money and energy.

Our home did not have any smart devices when it was built, except for one thing where I had the builder run CAT 5e cable in most of the rooms, making it ready for the smartness. I did not opt for hard wiring an audio system or security system as I believed that making them wireless will be more beneficial and I can add them myself.

Strategy

When it comes to home automation there are lots of choices and I decided to select the right one based on the below parameters. The priority is not always in the same order listed below

  • Openness - Being an active developer and with coding as the only hobby, I want the system should be open and flexible to add or modify its behavior. 
  • Compatibility - Having a single main controller is essential for the ease of managing the devices
  • Cost - Of course a very important factor, but sometimes pushed down in priority due to "cool factor"
  • Cool Factor - I wanted the whole smart home experience to be liked and used by my kids, so coolness and ease of use is another important factor

In this article I'm going to tell why I decided to go with a particular device, but I'm not going to compare it with other makes/models. Since this is a fastly growing/changing area and the reasoning may become obselete in a newer version, so I'll remember to provide the approximate time during which the decision was made.

Hub  

This is the brain of the smart home and I did not have any dilemma when selecting the Hub (August 2016).

With support for many Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Wi-Fi devices, the Samsung SmartThings Hub is one of the most versatile home automation hubs around. Thanks to an active developer community, the SmartThings Labs development group, and an impressive list of vendors enrolled in the Works with SmartThings certification program, there are close to 200 compatible products that can be controlled through the hub. The list includes thermostats, lighting products, door locks, dimmer switches, video cameras, garage door openers, audio devices, and smoke detectors, among other things. There are a variety of SmartApps available that make it easy to have these devices interact with each other, and you can create IFTTT recipes to make things happen according to Web-based event triggers.

For developers, Samsung provides a tool https://graph.api.smartthings.com/ to manage the hubs, devices, view logs, create new smart apps etc. The developer documentation is very detailed and helpful to start with your own smart app.

I control almost every smart device in the home using SmartThings, and the SmartThings app (Android and iOS) is very easy to use. The automation and security configurations are pretty simple too and I'm still playing with these configurations to arrive at the most suitable setting for our home. One examples of the automation is switching the status of the home to Away automatically when I and my wife step out of home. It also activates the night mode or morning mode based on the activity in the living room.

The data generated by SmartThings is available for download or access via API and interpreting them gives lot of valuable information. There are services like https://app.initialstate.com/ which gives more insight to such data.
 

Lighting

I have been following the development of Philips Hue from the time it was launched and I had it in my list even before deciding the Hub. In fact this is the first smart item I purchased as soon as we settled in the home (July 2016). Though it is costly compared to Lightify or other similar bulbs I went for it due to the various bulb types I needed. I did not do much research on this comparing other competitors as I had made my mind to use Philips Hue even before there were any competitors. Currently we have around 12 BR30 Color, 2 A19 Color, 4 A19 White Hue bulbs. The exterior lights are white and they are set to switch on and off automatically using SmartThings during sunset and sunrise. The interior lights are color just as a cool factor which my kids enjoy a lot. Few examples of the cool usage is - blink the kitchen lights when the cooking time is done in the oven (GE Profile), activating party mode in family room through voice (Google Home). Philips Hue integrates well with the SmartThings, IFTTT and Google Home and they are currently configured in such a way that we do not use the Philips Hue app or SmartThings app to control the lights anymore, but every light is controlled either based on events or controlled by voice.

Future Plans include installing under cabinet lighting in Kitchen with Hue LED Strip, Front Yard Lighting, Entertainment Center Lighting etc

Thermostat

Ecobee 3 vs Nest would be the most searched term by me in google during the month of July/August 2016. Finally I decided to go with ecobee 3 for the primary reason that it uses the remote sensors for tracking the temperature in individual rooms. The 3.5 touch screen display and its elegant look scored additional points as well.

I installed the ecobee3 myself. My home has 2 zones and I started with the second floor zone comprising of bedrooms. I had some challenges as there was no C wire and I ended up blowing the fuse in HVAC system when trying to install the power extender kit. The technical support was very helpful and finally I found that the C wire is in fact available but not wired, after which the installation was very simple. Installing the second ecobee 3 was like a breeze due to the prior experience.

Ecobee3 as such is very smart, again with lot of data available for me to analyze and tune the settings. It took a while for us to get used to the smartness of the thermostat, but then after 4 months we do not even think about it now as it is fully integrated with SmartThings and controls everything based on various automation events. Sleeping comfort is definitely better and energy bill has considerable savings. The various analytics shown in ecobee3 website dashboard (Home IQ) provides a very good idea on how effectively it is controlling the temperature and making our life easy.

There was one thing I was worried, as I knew that ecobee3 will not be officially supported by Google Home. But IFTTT support has solved that issue and I can control the home temperature by voice too.

Security

This is a tough one and I'm still evaluating various options. I did not want to pay the enormous monthly subscription for the standard security systems and at the same time did not want to compromise on the security of the family. The current setup is a DIY security setup which is in par with some of the modern wireless security systems that are becoming very popular.

SmartThings has a Home Monitoring Kit with various sensors, but I did not want to spend so much $$ at one time and get everything. I started building the security system by adding the sensors one by one. I started with purchasing a single SmartThings Motion Sensor and tested all the event triggers. After understanding how it works and getting convinced that I can build a full fledged home security system myself, I started adding more sensors. The key advantage of using SmartThings is that it supports the sensors from other manufacturers as well and it supports both Z-Wave and Zigbee. This gave me lot of options and I found many cheaper compatible sensors like the ones from MonoPrice.

The current setup consists of the door/window sensors at all the entry points, sensors in the garage door, smart locks, motion sensors in all key locations inside home. All these devices are controlled and monitored by SmartThings which triggers all kind of alarm/notifications which would terrify anyone entering the home unnoticed. SmartThings also has option for Professionally Monitored Service (that makes 911 call) for a no-contract monthly affordable pricing. 

In addition to these indoor security I'm also evaluating the outdoor security with surveillance cameras. Again, the criteria for selection are easy installation and affordability. I got the Netgear Arlo (not PRO) 4 camera pack during the black friday sale. This is completely wireless and hence easy to install. In last 1.5 months of usage I have learned that positioning the camera is the key factor to make it work as expected. I have already changed the location of the cameras few times and still need to get couple of them work correctly. There are few problems like lag in motion detection which negates the whole purpose of using it, but it can handle the security till I have enough money and time to invest into a much sophisticated camera surveillance system. This is a fast growing area with multiple new players entering this market and there are better options now (like Netgear Arlo Pro). The CAT 5e cable that I have run throughout the home will be sufficient for installing a wired camera system as well, but that is a project down the line. The Netgear Arlo is also compatible with SmartThings, which actually helped me to control the camera availability based on events. For example the family room camera will switch on only in the night or when no one is at home. This type of control helps to overcome one of the disadvantages of using wireless camera - battery life.

Voice Assistant

Google Home was my choice over Amazon Echo/Alexa just for a simple reason that I expected Google Home to be more open and provide advanced SDK for the developers. I pre-ordered it on the day it was announced and got it in October 2016. Recently Google launched the "Actions on Google" which helps to build extensions for the Google Assistant. I've just started to try this out and will do an exclusive article covering it.

Another important reasons for going with Google Home is because of its expected support to the Google Ecosystem - like YouTube. My 6 year old daughter who is an avid listener/watcher of the kids music videos in YouTube is naturally the major user of Google Home. Its integration with SmartThings, IFTTT has enabled us to do almost everything with voice - unlocking a door, switching on the TV, playing a movie in NetFlix, playing song in speaker etc.

Entertainment

Sony Bravia Android TV, XBox One S, Vizio SmartCast 5.1 Soundbar, Harmony Hub forms the core entertainment system of our home. Though XBox One S with Cortona is capable of adding some smartness to our entertainment, it is currently used exclusively for gaming. The Android TV with built in Google Cast and the Vizio Soundbar with built in Google Cast are supported by the Google Home, because of which searching YouTube or playing something from YouTube or Netflix is done by just voice commands. The Harmony Hub is integrated with Google Home through IFTTT and hence powering on or off these entertainment systems is done by voice as well. 

Kitchen Appliances

While selecting the appliances for the home, I managed to find few of the appliances with some smartness built into it. GE Wall Oven, LG Washer & Dryer, LG Refrigerator have WiFi connectivity and has their own apps to control them remotely. Though they are not compatible with SmartThings, those appliances do have IFTTT support which opens up all kinds of possibilities. For now I have not played much around these appliances except for basic notifications on oven cook time completion via kitchen lights, washing cycle or drying cycle completion, refrigerator door open etc.

Garage Door

The LiftMaster garage doors were dumb till I added the WiFi module to it. The MyQ Garage Door Opener adds the capability to open, close or monitor the garage doors remotely using their mobile app. MyQ does not have official SmartThings support, but the developer community already has a smart app developed for it, which means the garage doors can also be included as part of the SmartThings devices and can be controlled and monitored. The MyQ Lite is a promising smart app which I'm yet to try.

Future Plans

SmartThings has an Arduino Shield, which makes this platform really really interesting. The possibilities are endless - I can make my robots more intelligent by triggering actions through SmartThings, I can build a smart watering system with moisture sensor, I can make the curtains smart with a shield and couple of servo motors.

Actions on Google opens up the possibility to do everything with voice. Currently most of the actions are triggered through IFTTT, which could be changed so that the commands are issued directly to the devices from Google Assistant. 

Microsoft's Home Hub coming in future Windows 10 updates will make every Windows device as a hub with a screen and I cannot wait to build my own hub with the powerful Cortona.

A Smart Network Switch with sufficient PoE ports for the wired camera, HD IP NVR System, smart landscape lighting are some of the device investments and projects that are coming down the road.

 

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