June 26, 2016 2 Comments
Almost 15 years ago I attempted to convert our house into a smart home. Back then many smart devices were controlled using the X-10 protocol, which communicated over power lines. It was cool when it worked, but it was far from reliable. Fortunately the connected home has come a long way since then. Here’s why I believe the smart home is now ready for prime time:
Why Smart Devices Have Come of Age
- Voice-activated – Smart controllers like Amazon’s Echo control thermostats, light bulbs and smart hubs using your voice. Voice-activated controllers are easy to use because they respond to natural language commands like “Alexa, turn off the family room light.”
- Better reliability – Many smart devices are now controlled using ZigBee or Z-Wave. These newer smart home protocols have many advantages over the earlier home automation protocols like X-10. First, they don’t communicate over power lines, so they are much more reliable. Products like light switches and outlets act as signal repeaters, so they extend the range of your network. Second, they communicate over a mesh network, so any smart device can talk to any other smart device. Finally, some of these new protocols don’t use the same frequencies as Wi-Fi products, so they are much less susceptible to wireless interference.
- Interoperability – Smart hubs like Samsung’s Smart Things work with Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave and cloud-connected products like Amazon’s Echo. In fact, over 1,000 different products work with SmartThings today, so you won’t hard a hard time finding compatible products. Although SmartThings is a Samsung product, it works with iPhone as well. In the future, the SmartThings hub is supposed to work with the Thread home automation protocol, which Google and others are using, as well as Bluetooth, which Apple’s HomeKit uses.
- Easy to install – The first smart home devices were connected using wires. Now, many devices are wireless. To add a motion sensor, you just stick it to the wall using adhesive tape. If you decide to move it later, you can do so without leaving any holes in your wall. These smart devices are battery-powered, so they don’t need an AC adapter, or connection to wall power. They even report their battery level to the smart hub, so you’ll know when it is time to purchase a new battery. In case you are wondering, batteries last about a year.
- No security keypads or loud alarms – Today’s smart home can be programmed to automatically arm itself after every family member has left. Only then will you be notified when there is motion. There’s no need for a loud alarm that annoy your neighbors. You’ll receive a text that tells you what triggered the alarm (e.g. smoke, fire, motion or a water leak). If you have cameras installed, you’ll see what caused the motion. When the first family member returns home, the alarm will be automatically turned off, without the need to enter a long security code. And the best part is, you get all of these services and more without a monthly fee.
- Cloud communication – Smart home products like Amazon’s Echo, Samsung’s SmartThings and smart thermostats communicate over the cloud. As a result, web services like IFTTT can turn on all of your lights if your Nest Protect detects smoke, or turn on your outside lights when it’s rainy. You can even have your smart home call you if your kids get into the liquor cabinet, or use your smartwatch to turn off things. The cloud also tells your smart devices when sunset occurs every day. This makes it easy to turn on your lights at the perfect time all year round.
- Mass appeal – Smart home products are no longer just for nerds. Nest thermostats, Dropcam and Amazon’s Echo are all extremely popular. Over 100,000 Nest thermostats are sold every month. Over 3 million Amazon Echos have been sold to date. These companies have also done a good job explaining how these devices work with other smart home devices, so they have effectively primed the pump for other smart home products. Once Apple’s HomeKit catches on, and Google comes out with their smart hub, millions of additional consumers are likely to create their own smart homes.
- Smart devices do more – Samsung’s multi-sensor can detect contact open and closed status, movement, vibration, and orientation (vertical or horizontal). Smart outlets measure energy usage and act as signal repeaters. Some smart thermostats also detect motion, so they can automatically turn off your air conditioning when you are away. Some wireless smart devices also report temperature, so they could detect a fire in an area of your home that does not have a smoke detector.
- Better software and services – The first smart hubs only worked with software from a single company. Today’s smart hubs and controllers work with apps, plug-ins and services from a wide range of different developers. Apps are available that do a wide range of things. If you can’t find an app that does what you want, you can create your own, or modify existing apps. The best part is that you do not have to an experienced programmer to do this. Amazon Echo users can use a wide range of plug-ins called Skills and services including Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio TuneIn, Audible, Amazon Music and Prime Music.
Things a Smart Home Can Do for You
There is almost no limit what is possible in today’s smart home. Here are just a few examples of the things you can do:
- Have your air conditioner automatically turn up it’s thermostat so it doesn’t run after all of cars used by your family have left your neighborhood
- Setup your Sonos to play the sound of a loud dog barking when there is motion and you’re not home
- Have your Jawbone to automatically open your window blinds and disable your alarm when you get up in the morning
- Recieve a text after your mail has arrived
- Use your phone to start a “Good morning” mode that adjusts thermostat, turns on a coffee maker and starts your favorite music playlist, or a “Goodbye” mode, that opens your garage door, turns up the thermostat, turn off all of your lights and locks your doors
- Get a notification on your BMW dashboard if there is an intruder, fire or water leak in your home
- Use a sensor to monitor the moisture in your soil and only turn on sprinklers when needed
- Use your iPhone or Android smartphone to control any smart device in your home. Have you ever left your home and realized that you forget to turn something off? You can now address issues like this using your phone – no matter where you are.
- Make a voice call on an Ooma Telo using an Amazon Echo
- Turn on a ceiling fan after the temperature rises above 78 degrees
- Change the color of your lighting based on different events. For example:
- If there’s a water leak, turn my lights blue
- If there’s a smoke alarm, turn my lights red
- If there’s a fire, turn on all of the lights in my home
- Record 10 seconds of video prior to the start of an event, so you can see what triggered an alarm. For example, if someone were to kick in your front door, you’d see the door fly open and the face of the person as they entered, not just the back of their head
And last, but not least, a smart home will save you money. Nest Labs released a white paper last year, which showed a smart thermostat saves its owner 10-12% on heating and a 15% on cooling. That’s a savings of up to $145 a year. ecobee claims an average savings of 23%. If you live in Southern California you can get two $150 ecobee thermostats for free if you agree to raise your thermostat on peak usage days. You’ll save even more if you have your lights automatically turn off when you exit a room. I could go on, but you get the idea. If you can dream it, you can probably do it.
How to Get Started
Start by buying a smart hub. The hub is the brain of your smart home, connecting you and your devices via apps on your phone, tablet or computer. Once you select a hub, you can start buying smart devices. I started with an Amazon Echo. Then I bought a smart hub and two motion controllers for $180. Discount coupons and sales are common. There are also money-saving bundles available that include a smart hub, motion sensor, two multipurpose sensors (that monitor whether doors, windows, or your garage are open or closed) and an outlet to control lights, or small appliances. Here are some tips how to make your smart home more reliable:
- Locate your hub wisely – It’s tempting to put your smart hub next to your Wi-Fi router, but that’s not the best place for it. Locate it in a central location that is not too close to your router and other wireless devices.
- Watch for interference – Because ZigBee devices share the same 2.4 GHz band as Wi-Fi products, they could have problems with interference. When possible, have your smartphone, laptop and media streamers to use the 5 GHz band to eliminate wireless interference. If you must use the 2.4 GHz band, use a mobile app like this one to change to a less congested Wi-Fi channel. Sonos products can also interfere with ZigBee devices. Z-Wave devices are more reliable because they use a less congested wireless band.
- Create a device map – It’s a good idea to draw a simple map of your connected home and the estimate the distance of each device from the smart hub or the closest device with the same protocol.
- Pay attention to the distance between your smart hub and ZigBee devices, because their maximum range is 35 feet. Every time ZigBee or Z-Wave signals go through a wall, their range drops. Z-Wave has a maximum range of 100 feet however, if you have metal junction boxes and dense walls, the range can drop to only 17 feet. Try to arrange devices and repeaters to have line-of-sight communication with each other, or at most one wall (or floor) between them.
- Color code Z-Wave and ZigBee devices differently on your map, because ZigBee devices can only communicate with other ZigBee devices and Z-Wave devices can only communicate with other Z-Wave devices.
- Circle all devices that act as repeaters. Keep in mind that battery-powered devices cannot act as repeaters.
- Techie tip: Rotating your smart hub can solve signal problems. Try to determine which direction your antennas radiate and position the hub so it doesn’t radiate away from your devices.
- Use repeaters to extend your range – Z-Wave and ZigBee device utilize mesh networking, which allows signals to “hop” through other devices to reach the destination device. However, both have range restrictions (as discussed above). Add a repeater if some of your smart devices don’t respond reliably. Keep in mind that a ZigBee repeater won’t extend the range of a Z-Wave device.
- Tune-up your network – As you add smart devices, the topology of your network changes. There are several things you can do to improve the communication between your smart devices and hub:
- Z-Wave devices do not automatically look for new “parents.” Once a device picks a parent, it will hold on to it until it cannot talk to it any more, even if a different parent is added to the network that would be a better choice. To make sure your Z-Wave devices are routing optimally, look for a “Repair Z-Wave Network” command in the software for your hub.
- You can force a ZigBee device to pair with a better parent by turning off your hub, and leaving it off for up to 10 minutes so the device loses communication with its former parent (the hub). After you turn back on the power to your hub, your ZigBee devices will find better parents (if they exist).
The Last Word
The smart home has come a long way. The best smart home hubs support multiple connected home protocols so you can choose from a wide range of devices. Interoperability between products is good and there is a wide range of products available including motion sensors, presence sensors, moisture sensors, door locks, electrical outlets, voice activated controllers, smoke detectors, smart light bulbs, garage door openers, vents, sprinklers, blinds, speakers, thermostats and much more. Smart devices communicate over a mesh network, which improves as you add more devices and connected to the cloud so you can monitor and control your smart home anywhere in the world. It’s time for you to think about automating your home. Start simple and add products over time. There are many good videos online that will help you get started. Have fun!
Copyright 2016 Rick Schwartz. All rights reserved. Linking to this article is encouraged. All of the comments in this blog are Rick’s alone, and do not reflect the views of his employer.