Building a Smarter Home – Part 1: Build Your Foundation

Even since before owning my first home, I always had my sights on the great “smart home” tech that was flooding the market. I had a few things at home, like Hue lights, but needed a place of my own before truly spreading my wings into this fast growing area. When my wife and I bought our house, it was time to unleash. The Hue bulbs and a shiny new Nest thermostat were installed within 48hrs of getting the keys. Shortly following that, a smart outlet switch. And then some Nest smoke alarms. I was quickly facing a problem though – I had a lot of vendors in our Smart Home, and that meant a lot of different apps on my phone to control things. Some of these could communicate with each other through things like IFTTT integration or native integration between apps, but I needed a way to tie everything together, keep expanding, and have our Smart Home feel cohesive together, no matter what brands I continued to add into the mix.

House

I had to stop and do some research; I felt like a Hub was what I needed, but like most Smart Home tech users, this was all new to me and easy to get overwhelmed in, even as a veteran technology lover and ex-professional tech blogger.

A hub was in fact what I needed. Smart Home hubs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Manufacturers aren’t making this any easier because it seems every major player who makes smart home tech is now making their own hub, rather than letting a few dominant market players perfect the hub and focusing on their own technology and accessories instead.

Why a hub?

A hub will give all your devices a central location to be controlled from. Rather than using a plethora of different apps on your phone and mixing those with clunky IFTTT automation, you replace all that with a hub, which connects to your devices (irregardless of brand), and an app that connects to your hub. Now you open one app, it’s aware of all your devices and what they can do, and you can truly see the potential of a smart home by letting all your devices start to effortlessly communicate with each other.

Hubs often bring forward additional functionality, like Z-Wave and ZigBee wireless protocols, that allow you to get into more professional level home automation accessories too. A lot of home automation devices at your local electronics store are probably WiFi driven – WiFi is incredibly easy to setup and doesn’t require a hub – perfect for everyday, non-tech savvy users. But when you want things like motion sensors or door sensors, which don’t plug into a wall and rely on battery power, WiFi is way too power hungry to be an option. Wireless protocols like Z-Wave and ZigBee are especially nice for battery powered devices, as they often tout multi-year battery lives due to such low power consumption. My ZigBee motion sensor is rated at 6 years of battery life!

What hub?

When reading about hubs, everything kept pointing back to Samsung SmartThings. It has ZigBee and Z-Wave radios, battery backup for power outages, and comes from a big name (Samsung) that a lot of big name smart home players have gotten their devices certified with it for “out of the box” compatibility. Yet, something that surprised me from such a big name product, is that they maintain an awesome dev community too. Their IDE is open to anyone and you can get under the hood and add third party device handlers, smart apps, or even start writing your own code for device handling and app handling if there isn’t something out there. It was the best of both worlds – easy to get up and running with everything I had, yet powerful enough that as a technology geek and developer that I could get in there and make it even more awesome when I had time.

SmartThings Hub

SmartThings was also known as the best interface for adding Z-Wave and ZigBee into Home Assistant too, which is an open source project that seems to be “king of the hill” when it comes to home automation platforms. Think SmartThings, but completely made by and maintained by developers, rather than still relying on a governing large corporation that has to be cautious with upgrades and changes since people are paying for their products. Home Assistant seems like it can literally do anything you can dream up for your smart home, but not without a small learning curve, and time to set it up that I haven’t had yet! Home Assistant will be where my SmartThings hub is taken to for iteration 2.0 of my Smart Home and I’ll be sure to talk about it here when the time comes.

Why did I rule out other hubs? The community behind SmartThings, as well as it’s loaded feature set and nice mobile app were the deciding factors for me. It was mature. Vera was a close runner up. Wink, another big name hub, was out of the picture because I had tried their app and had nothing but a miserable time and terrible compatibility issues, even on well known products like my Hue lights (which the Wink app would take 30-60 seconds to turn on after pressing the power toggle!). Wink also seemed to have a troubled past, having changed hands a number of times, and most recently ending up Will.I.Am as it’s owner, who has nothing but a long list of failed tech products behind him.

The SmartThings hub was easy to setup after I bought it, I was up and running with my existing smart home devices connected to the hub within a half hour. I won’t go into more details on the hub, but watch out for my future posts in this series where I’ll start to outline all the creative ways the hub has become the most pivotal piece of my smart home!

Make a Plan

Don’t just start buying smart home products now. Make a plan, do your research, and know what you want to accomplish and why. It’s easy to get caught up in buying lots of useless and unneeded smart home tech, especially with how flooded the market has become in it. Here’s some points to consider in your plan:

  • What is the purpose of your Smart Home system? Mine was personal convenience, safety, and security
    • Personal Convenience – I wanted to do things like control key lights and the thermostat from anywhere in the house, and be able to build routines to automate certain actions we take around home. I’m not lazy, I’m efficient. This saves little bits of time every day, and between two people spread over a lifetime, this adds up to more time we can spend doing things other than walking around the house to adjust the temperature or light switches. This also offers energy efficiency by not leaving lights or devices on that don’t need to be (I’m told this is especially handy when we have kids some day too).
    • Safety – I want things like the outside lights to come on automatically if I’m arriving home after dark, or a lamp to turn on as I open the front door after dark to light my way entering the house. A safety lamp or two that come on inside the house after dark and go off when we go to bed will further enhance our visibility after dark and save us having to fumble for switches or trip over things on the floor as we move around.
    • Security – I want to know if our doors are opened or there’s motion in the house when we’re away. I also want a couple cheap cameras in some key areas of the property to catch anyone snooping around or getting too close to our house for comfort. Some of these cameras will also help the safety point too; if a water alarm goes off in the utility room, I want to be able to look and see if a pipe has burst, or if it’s a false alarm. If a Nest smoke alarm goes off on the main floor, I want to view a wide angle camera and see if there’s smoke or fire, or a false alarm.
    • Protocols – Zigbee, Z-Wave, WiFi, proprietary communication – there’s a lot of different ways that smart home gadgets can communicate! Try to standardize your ecosystem when you can, and avoid WiFi when other alternatives exist. WiFi is very crowded airwaves already, and limited bandwidth. You don’t want things like WiFi interference, or lack of bandwidth from several 4K Netflix steams going in the house, to start interrupting your time critical smart home control.

To Conclude…

If you’re caught buying Smart Home products and feeling like everything you buy works in it’s own silo and does nothing but add even more apps to your phone, then you need to take that next step and get a hub. Smart Home Hubs are still a tough thing to market because most people don’t understand what they are, or why they need them, when all those apps on their phone control things just fine. Until manufacturers can find a solid way to market a brand-agnostic, fully integrated smart home, then hubs will continue to be a mystery to anyone but the truly technical users of these products. Manufacturers who make smart home accessories also need to stop trying to make their own hubs and let the dominant players continue to master this; simply using their products to market “compatible with” for the big name hubs. When so many small companies keep trying to re-invent the wheel with simple hubs of their own, consumers aren’t benefiting by seeing a mature product like SmartThings and are getting sour tastes of what a hub can do by being stuck using some half-baked hub that a lighting company has tried to make, for example. Order a hub; they’re only a little over $100CDN for a SmartThings, and will let you see and interact with your Smart Home like you never thought possible.

After you order your hub, stop. Make a plan and roadmap for your smart home, make sure the products you’re buying are compatible with your hub (either natively, or by third party developer plugins), and don’t get caught up in buying useless smart home products that don’t play into what you’re trying to achieve. Stick to common wireless protocols when you can, and it’s even nice to stick to common vendors when you can too (for instance, all my security cameras are from one company, all my smart smoke alarms are one company, etc.).

Stay tuned for more parts in this series soon!