Getting started with home automation

Friends, family and work colleagues all know that I’m a bit of a home automation geek so it’s not surprising that I get asked about getting started. With the holiday season approaching, I thought it would be a good idea to summarise my thoughts for anyone looking to treat themselves for Christmas.

If the question is how to get started then the answer is, of course, it depends. Isn’t that almost always the answer, whatever the question?

The first question you need to ask yourself is what do you want to achieve? Do you want to bump up your home security with cameras and sensors? Do you want lights that come on automatically? Do you want remote control of your thermostat? Or do you just want to play with some new toys?

The second question is how simple do you want it to be? Are you looking for something as polished and simple as possible or are you happy to get your hands dirty figuring things out?

Perhaps most importantly, do you want to be reliant on cloud services? Not only does that mean your home automation stops working if your internet connection is down, you’re also stuck if the vendor decides to discontinue the service. It’s something you’ll need to assess for each device, and it’s important to understand how they handle outages – make sure there’s a fallback option, especially if it’s for something like a thermostat. For less critical devices, you may be happy to risk the occasional outage.

You should also think about how you’re going to control your devices. It’s unlikely that you’ll want to use a phone app every time you want to turn the lights on or adjust the thermostat. Automation goes a long way but there will be times when you want to make changes that can’t be captured in automatic routines.

Voice control is a great option, but it’s worth thinking about having some kind of manual control. If you have guests do you really want to have to provide them with a cheat sheet of Alexa commands so they can use the lights?

Once you’ve decided what sort of things you want, you can start thinking about whether to get individual best of breed products or to go all-in on a system from one vendor. Going with a single vendor has some advantages – you’ll only need one hub and one app to control the devices and you can expect them to work seamlessly together.

Hive, for example, cover most of the bases – a thermostat, lights, plugs, sensors and cameras. There are some gaps – there are no light switches to control the lights manually and no outdoor cameras. There’s also a monthly fee, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Which business model is most likely to keep the backend service running – one that sells the products upfront and offers the corresponding cloud service free for life or one that has an ongoing revenue stream from the service?

If you opt for the more flexible approach and get a mix and match of devices from different vendors you can tie them together with voice control. There are basically two options – Amazon Echo and Google Home, and with the Google Mini now available to compete with the Echo Dot both offer low price options if your main requirement is voice control rather than listening to music.

If you’re already deep into their respective ecosystems the choice is more or less made for you. Both work with a range of smart devices, allowing you to control heating and lights. The Echo currently works with a wider range of devices but Google Home is better at answering general questions. Google Home can also play media on Chromecast devices, while the Echo is limited to Bluetooth.

Voice assistants are great for ad-hoc control of devices but if you want automation you’ll need a hub that works with all of your devices. If you want to use sensors it’ll help to understand the various communication protocols that they use – as it happens, I’ve written about that before

Samsung’s SmartThings was the hub that got me started. As well as its own sensors and plugs it can manage a wide range of third party products as well as generic Z-Wave sensors.

Although it’s a pretty good platform I’m reluctant to recommend it. The hub and starter kit are still widely available but it can be hard to get hold of stock of the sensors, leading me to wonder about the long term viability of the platform.

There are a wide range of hubs that can act as controllers for Z-Wave and Zigbee devices but fewer that integrate with other products. I don’t have personal experience so can’t recommend any of them. The key thing is to look for compatibility with the devices and services that you want to use.

If you’re reasonably technical, I’d strongly recommend Home Assistant as the automation platform to tie all of your products together. You can get started easily and cheaply by installing it onto a Raspberry Pi.

My original review is now out of date and it was only written in March – Home Assistant has moved on in leaps and bounds since then, especially when it comes to user friendliness.

The key points still stand though – it frees you up from reliance on cloud services, gives you an unparalleled level of control and works with a comprehensive range of third party products.

So that’s covered some general strategies for home automation and options to tie together different products. Next time I’ll cover specific devices such as lights and cameras.

in Home Automation

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