The Best Home Automation System

The Best Home Automation Controller

Deciding on the “Best Home Automation Controller” or the “Best Home Security Controller” is easy – if we know exactly what we want to do and have determined a budget, come up with an installation plan…

The difference between Home Security and Home Automation (Smart Home or Intelligent Home) can be a matter of perspective. A blind control (roller) or curtain control (slider) system attached to your controller can be viewed as Home Security – if you don’t want your plants fried by the sun. It can be viewed as part of system Intelligence if you want the sun to enter during the winter or to prevent sunshine entry during summer months.  One Controller routine prevents the home from overloading the air conditioning, while the other can allow sunshine to enter in the winter months. This can significantly lower your energy bills. Adding light level and multi-sensors can allow you to create “scenes” or programming that can control window covers so that you don’t even have to do the mundane task of pushing the Smartphone buttons – and works when you’re not there to monitor.

Do a House Survey

Do a whole house survey whether you plan to “piecemeal” the system due to budget constraints or want to plan and purchase the entire system. This allows you to make a more judicious choice of controllers, sensors, switches and voice assistants.

Door and Window sensors are obvious choices – but they really should match up to what your final controller choice is likely to be. So, are they going to be RF (433/315 MHz), ZigBee or Z-Wave or WiFi (IP) style? Ok – maybe you should just forget that and do a functional survey. In other words – what function do you need at each point. Why? The sensors are the most expensive part of the system. I know this because I have now installed several systems with cheap controllers and expensive controllers. You may even need to concern yourself with adding repeaters to ensure that the network can communicate with the central controller. Once you have a list of what you require to monitor your house in terms of cameras, motion sensors, door and window sensors water leak sensors, and automated light switches etc. you can gain some idea of how complex your system must be.

So, look at issues like water leak sensors, survey cameras, camera quality, outdoor sensor needs and whatever issues you can think of that you would like to be monitored. Save all of this in a simple document where you count sensors, cameras, and multi-sensors (Temperature, Motion, Humidity and Light level for example) per room. Determine a place to put your controller with wired internet or WiFi access. Consider the size of the network and the likely need for repeaters or signal boosters for WiFi. Consider the need for a cell phone access to back up the internet access and finally, you’re ready.

Smart Apps vs Controllers (Hubs)

What some manufacturers are discovering is that people want to “try it out” – so they are manufacturing or using OEM WiFi sensors for their networks and providing Smartphone Apps or doing some integration. However, they are also discovering that as the approach about 64 devices the networks do not function well. This has been noted by Geeklink on their Facebook postings. So, if you can afford it start with Z-Wave, Zigbee or the RF Sensor networks from the beginning.

Home Controller Chart

A simplified list of Home Controllers

Controller

Interfaces

Programmable

Amazon Alexa Support

Google Home Support

Approximate Cost

Vera Plus

Z-Wave (+), WiFI, Ethernet, Zigbee, Bluetooth, USB, SMS, Email

Yes, via scenes, schedules and Lua (Tested)

Yes

Yes (Tested)

$150 USD

VeraEdge

Z-Wave, WiFI, Ethernet, SMS, EMail

Yes, via scenes, schedules and Lua (Tested on Plus)

 

 

$100 USD

SmartThings 3rd Gen

(Samsung)

Z-Wave, Zigbee, WiFI

No,  Uses Playstore App

 

 

$70 USD

Geeklink Thinker

WiFI, RF (315, 433), IR

Yes (App), Or, you can modify firmware

 

Yes

Geeklink App on Playstore

$70 USD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broadlink RM Pro +

WiFi, IR, RF, Ethernet, USB

Scenes

Yes?

Yes

$50 USD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Insteon Hub V2

Dual Band Insteon communication

Ethernet

Email or push alerts to the Insteon Hub App

Scenes and Schedules

Echo or Dot

 

$99USD

 

 

 

Will it be smart?

To answer the first question you might ask “Will a home automation controller make my home a ‘Smart Home?’”, the answer is, “Not really” – at least not without some fairly serious programming. For the most parts, the controller can play out some structured scenes where you provide a set of steps you want to be followed in the event of an intrusion alarm or a water leak for example. It can’t recognize that it’s you who are breaking into the house because you left your phone on the table.

Voice Assistants like Google Home™ and Amazon Alexa™

Now, to make things a bit more interesting, most manufacturers of controllers and personal assistants (Google Home, Amazon Alexa) do have the ability to create scenes or routines. Now I can say something like “Hey Google, Activate TV Power” or however I name it. No need to find the remote.

Home Controllers

The Vera and Broadlink controllers allow you to create scenes and I have used both. They work well and do allow you to respond to an event. So, we’re getting there. 

 

Network Types or styles

People refer to IP Networks, Z-Wave networks, and Zigbee networks as well as proprietary RF networks and InfraRed Networks. These words tell us what protocol the network uses. In other words, a door sensor sending a message to the controller sends a code which indicates that it has been opened. The message is always in the same format regardless of whether it’s a normal use or a break-in. It’s the controller that decides the meaning of the coded message. If the Controller is in Away, Night or Vacation mode – we should get an alert sent to a Smartphone and/or a siren activated or perhaps an alert made to a monitoring center. If the House is in “Home” mode we might chime a bell so people know that there is someone opening or closing a doorway (or window). Most Z-Wave and Zigbee sensors can respond to a request for status information. The message arrives in a specific format as a string of characters and the message returned is always in the same format with the requested information packed in the middle of the message.

A quick summary of the difference between Z-Wave and Zigbee can be found here.

“Summary

ZigBee and Z-Wave target the same general applications. Of the two, ZigBee is by far the more versatile since it can be configured for virtually any short-range wireless task. Profiles are readily available to minimize development time for common applications. On the other hand, the protocol is far more complex, resulting in longer development times. Z-Wave uses a far simpler protocol, so development can be faster and simpler.

Z-Wave chips are available from only one source, Sigma Designs. They sell only to OEMs, ODM, and other major clients. More than 500 consumer home control products are available in stores like Home Depot and Lowes, but many don’t state that Z-Wave is used.

ZigBee chips are available from Ember, Freescale, Microchip Technology, and Texas Instruments. Complete, ready to use ZigBee modules are also available from multiple sources like Atmel, CEL, Digi, Jennic, Lemos, and RFM.

For a given power level of 0 dBm, Z-Wave’s range is greater than ZigBee simply because the lower operating frequency supports it with pure physics (Friis formula). That also translates into a more reliable connection in some applications.

ZigBee uses the widely populated 2.4-GHz ISM band, which it must share with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other radios that can produce interference. Most ZigBee devices have co-existence features that help mitigate interference, yet the potential is greater in the 2.4-GHz band than the 908.42-MHz channel of Z-Wave.”

Z-Wave Devices

 

 

Table of used frequencies in various parts of the world as of January 2017:

Frequency in MHz

Used in

921.4 ; 919.8

Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia

921.4

Brazil

868.40 ; 868.42 ; 869.85

CEPT Countries (Europe and other countries in the region), French Guiana

919.8 ; 921.4

Chile, El Salvador, Peru

868.4

China, Singapore, South Africa

919.8

Hong Kong

865.2

India

869

Russia

915 - 917

Israel

920 - 925

Taiwan

922 - 926

Japan

919 - 923

South Korea

908.4 ; 908.42 ; 916

USA, Canada, Argentina, Guatemala, The Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados, Mexico, Bermuda, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Panama, British Virgin Islands, Suriname, Cayman Islands, Trinidad & Tobago, Colombia, Turks & Caicos, Ecuador, Uruguay

 

 

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Z-Wave

 

Zigbee devices

Some units like the Vera Plus can also control Zigbee devices. However, you do need to pay attention to the country or frequency designation.

There are four legal frequency bands which provide applications with a better signal range and propagation due to the lower frequency. The use of these frequency bands avoids interference with WiFi etc. in indoor environments. The WiFi 2.4 GHz signals can be more easily reflected by wall surfaces and metal structures and attenuated by humidity.

Those frequency bands and their related regions are:

950 MHz – Japan
902 MHz – North America, Australia
868 MHz – Europe
780 MHz – China

The use of those bands allows developers to build products for global and regional markets. It also allows developers to adjust output power to match the intended function – long range vs short range.

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zigbee

If you want to understand the finer points of Zigbee networking, go here. For a paper by Ankur Tomar of Global Technology Centre Volume 1, from July 2011. If you are a techie it’s quite readable. If your eyes glaze over – quit reading.

 

Infrared (IR) Controllers

 

Proprietary RF (433/325 Mhz) Controllers

 

IP Based Controllers

Your Smartphone is as good an example as any of an IP controller. All the devices in your Home IP network must communicate with the Internet via your Hub, the Hub also communicates with your Smartphone directly. So, if you’re home, the pat is from the device to the hub to the phone. If you’re away from your home the local home device, like a door switch, communicates with the hub, which communicates with your phone.

So, what happens if your Smartphone is out of reach? Well, it’s simple, there’s no controller and any messages go off into ether-land – literally.

Some Home Controllers can use plugins (Vera) created to communicate with WiFi devices – so it can be done – but someone has to create the code to handle the specific device. There is no general method.

There is a plugin for Vera that will control a Sonoff or an Evak IP switch, for example. There is also a plugin for the Nest thermostat. So, for now, this seems to be one of the few controllers that can deal with some, but not all, IP based devices.