Smart Home Technologies: Part 2

In this Part 2 of my Smart Home Technologies series, I’m going to dig in a little deeper into what exactly IS a Smart Home. Well, it’s complicated, so I will try to outline this in very simple terms so that most of you can understand.

Part of the challenge with identifying, designing, buying or even discussing a “Smart Home” is the wide range of components and technologies that actually enable a Smart Home. For example, most of you already have some Smart Home devices in your home but don’t really realize it. Amazon Alexa, Ring Doorbells, Nest, maybe a Video Camera or two are all things we as consumers have already brought into our homes. The challenge is, none of them are talking to each other, or if they are say through Alexa, we have to navigate though a complex jungle of apps on our phone and settings within the Amazon Alexa platform to get even the minimum of cohesive connectivity. And what about my Wi-Fi network? It’s all too complicated, so what do we do? Usually, simply jump on the “whatever vendor tells me they can build a smart home” train and we’re off to the races…maybe?

In order to start building your Smart Home, you should first ask yourself a few questions and grade yourself on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being “what are you talking about” to a 5 being “I can do that in my sleep”. Fortunately for me, and my family, I run a technology company and tech is not only something I do, but it’s a passion. (So take this article with that grain of salt, though I’m going to address this for any level of ready).

RATE YOURSELF: How comfortable are you with the following

  1. Configuring Internet & Wi-Fi Routers and Network?
  2. Installing plug in devices such as AppleTV, Roku, Amazon Alexa, Ring doorbells or Nest HVAC controllers?
  3. Installing simple camera’s to a wall with a normal outlet for power?
  4. Installing electrical switches to control lights and devices requiring power?
  5. Installing door handles & locks?

Now, if you answered 1-2 for any of the above 5 questions, you will want to lean yourself to a system that is fully integrated and setup by a single vendor. You will have to pay closer attention to how flexible that integrator is and how good they are at one or more types of systems to give you the most flexibility in your ultimate goals for your Smart Home. If your answers are more in the 3-4 area, you will probably look for a hybrid approach depending on which items are a 3 and which items are a 4. (This is fundamentally where I am most of the time. I’m comfortable installing light switches, installing camera’s and devices, but don’t have a clue when it comes to AV equipment and leave that to the professionals. If you are 5 on any of the above, you will lean more towards a fully customizable and controllable system simply because you can.

OVERVIEW: What a Smart Home System Looks Like

Before we go too far into the specific technologies required to build or setup a Smart Home, let’s take a 50,000 foot look at what a Smart Home looks like from a technology standpoint and why it’s so difficult for the average consumer to actually get their heads around all of the options and configurations out there. In the figure below, I’ve outlined the basic overview of how a Smart Home is configured and the technologies involved for each. (NOTE: This is based upon my experience with these device types and technologies. There are certainly a lot more configuration options out there and though I’m familiar with most, this overview will at least allow you to start understanding what is involved. Also, I have specifically left out the AV and Security System components in this sketch because I like to think of those as separate systems to the overall Smart Home picture. Yes, there is some overlap with technologies (Ring does doorbells and cameras, but also security, as an example)

Sketch of what a Smart Home System can look like across everything you may want to automate (Except AV, see my Part 1 series on that)

Looking at the sketch above, there are 3 basic components of a Smart Home: 1. The Smart Home Hub/Controller. This can be a single device (rarely achieved but the goal we all want) like Control4, Savant, Smarthings, Amazon Alexa, or a blend of devices and apps (current state of most Smart Home systems). 2. Devices, including light switches, lights, outlets, door locks, HVAC systems like Nest or Ecobee, appliances, garage doors, you get the point here. 3. Network communications. This is where is can get tricky because there are basically 5 ways all of your devices can communicate to the Smart Home controller to include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, Zigbee and direct ethernet connection. Let’s take a quick look at these three components of a Smart Home.

COMPONENTS OF A SMART HOME

  1. Controller/Hub – This is the brains of a Smart Home system. The device, or app that communicates with all of your other Smart Home devices you ultimately want to control. There are advantages and disadvantages to the selection of this central controller. Ultimately, this IS your decision point in determining what type of Smart Home technology you want in your home. (Truth be told, I have yet to see a single Controller/Hub that can truly automate and control EVERYTHING in your home well without spending a ton or money on the control system (a ton meaning $15,000+) without giving up flexibility on choosing the types of devices you want to use in your home. There are basically three ways to go here:
    • High-End AV Smart Home Control System: (See my Smart Home Technology: Part 1 series for more on this) Highly customizable control systems like Control4, Savant or Crestron can get you really close, but you are going to spend, depending upon the size of your home and complexity of your devices, upwards of $50,000 – $100,000 to implement and then another $2,000 to $5,000 per year in support services to handle upgrades, technical issues and maintenance…minimum. Additionally, these systems are closed systems, which you may or may not like. What I mean by this is you cannot manage the system yourself, it much be done by a certified integrator for that technology. So, if a light switch stops coming on 15 minutes after sunset as you expect, you can’t go in to the app and try to fix it, you will need to call your system integrator. Or, if you see a cool new camera you want to add overlooking your staircase, you can’t just add one, you will have to call the integrator and, additionally, you will have to use their camera technology, not the one you want. There are Advantages and Disadvantages to this approach:
      • Advantages: Single Vendor Approach, Lots of options depending upon base system, Handles all aspects of a Smart Home including AV, Devices and Automations.
      • Disadvantages: Can be very costly (upwards of $50,000 +, High Monthly/Annual Support to keep the system running, Can only use products from the base systems so you are stuck with what they have, hit or miss working with some of your existing technologies such as Nest, Ring or Amazon Alexa, closed system so you cannot simply add devices or apps by yourself.
    • Hybrid Smart Home System: This approach puts your AV Home Automation System in the hands of a company who does this for a living and keeps the “Smart Home” pieces of your automation to a Controller/Hub designed to just do Device Automation. Systems here would include Samsung Smarthings, Amazon Alexa and Google Home devices. Savant, or maybe Control4 to manage your AV systems and Smarthings, or Alexa to manage your Smart Home devices. The advantage to this approach is you can leave the complex AV technologies to the closed system pro’s (who among us actually know what an amplifier actually does, or how to setup a cool set of speakers outside) and then the more simple things like light switches, outlets, door locks can be setup and managed by you. This approach gives you the greatest flexibility in choosing your devices because products like Smarthings work with virtually any type of device on the market today and any type of communication method. If you like a particular brand of light switches for your home, for example GE Switches, that use either Z-Wave or Zigbee communications, Smarthings can handle it. Or, if you have a set of motion detectors from say Sonof (see a good review of different motion sensors here) that you want to use, Smarthings can handle and manage them for you in a single location. The downside is you will have to manage the devices, or hire an independent vendor to manage for you. Again, not a bad solution as there are plenty of IT Vendors out there to manage this part of your Smart Home technology. Once again, there are Advantages and Disadvantages to this approach:
      • Advantages: Relatively low cost for the Smart Home Devices side ($150 for the Smarthings Hub) and reduces cost of the AV Side depending upon your house size and AV needs (usually less than $15,000), Greater flexibility in choosing your technology (some people like AppleTV, others like Roku for example), works with any type of network communications (Z-Wave, Zigbee, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth), provides a relatively easy to use app that allows you to add/remove/modify devices and add automations and scenes to all of your devices (I have over 125 devices running on mine from landscape lighting, to outlets, lights, TV’s, motion sensors, Nest, etc. and counting).
      • Disadvantages: You, (or a 3rd party vendor based upon your ratings above) will need to be able to add/mount devices into your home and configure them to the Smarthings Hub, You will be the primary support person in your home (meaning when a light is not coming on your partner is calling you over to fix it), still can run into some incompatible devices so rather than calling a main AV person to just fix/find it, you have to do the research.
    • Cost Effective DIY Smart Home System: Now, to be honest, I don’t have a ton of experience in this area, but the systems we are talking about here are Nest/Google, Ring (Amazon) or products like Simplisafe. (I have had Nest devices now for over 6 years and I love them for just what they do, automate my Heat/AC, and I do have 2 flavors of Ring devices, again, love them for what they do at my doors). Now, it’s interesting because Nest started as an Apple spinoff product (former iPod designer from Apple started Nest) that has now morphed into a whole suite of Smart Home products. Same with Ring, it was a doorbell with a video Camera and now it, along with other products, can do a lot more around your home. Simplisafe has taken more of the ADT approach as first a DIY Security set of products like Camera’s, door bells, door locks, motion sensors and now moving into the whole Smart Home set of products. This is a super cool approach that may be appealing to the vast majority of you out there who have not been bored out of your mind up until this point reading this blog. Now, there are some Advantages and Disadvantages to this approach, along with the fact that Google/Nest are new to this Smart Home market, prying in with some established pieces of tech, and Simplisafe is relatively new but originally approached as a security option:
      • Advantages: Like with the high end whole home AV Control systems, you will have one system to manage most of your Smart Home devices, these systems tend to be super cost effective, probably less than a couple thousand dollars all in, or even less depending upon how much your need/want in automation, and they are very simple to use in real life
      • Disadvantages: This still represents somewhat of a hybrid approach to Smart Homes because these systems will not handle your AV Automations, the actual devices can be cheaper than what you expect (especially Video capture so pay attention to the fine print on resolution), and even though these systems are simple, simple is relative and you still may require a 3rd party to install and manage things for you in the beginning, though very unlikely a long term support need over time.

NETWORK COMMUNICATIONS

I thought it would be good to finalize this Part 2 of my Smart Home Technology series with a brief overview of the 5 ways your Smart Home devices communicate. If you really don’t care how they communicate, then you can just skip to my Final Thoughts section below, it won’t hurt my feelings.

Everything you do today, it seems, requires some type of network connectivity. When we buy a car now, we ask can it connect to my phone, does it have built in Wi-Fi, how about Alexa integration? We recently bought new appliances for our kitchen, and yes, I asked if there’s an app to monitor my ovens and my refrigerators? Of course there is said our designer! How these devices communicate with your Smart Home, or even an app on your iPhone is important, or at least it is to me. So let’s explore how all these Smart Devices can communicate to your Smart Home Hub.

Hardwire Ethernet

If you’re lucky, your house is equipped with ethernet ports in the walls of your home. Though you will rarely connect any of your Smart Devices directly to that ethernet port, they are useful for the second type of network communication which is Wi-Fi. If you live in a small house or apartment, chances our your router from your Internet provider will have a built in Wi-Fi network and it will be sufficiently strong to service all of your living spaces. As your house or apartment get’s bigger, with more rooms and more floors, this becomes increasingly more difficult to get a strong signal from that one Wi-Fi router. In order to “boost” this signal to other parts of your home, you can install compatible Extender, or my favorite, a Wi-Fi mesh technology that gives you really great coverage throughout your home, especially if you can plug those extenders or Wi-Fi mesh units direct into an ethernet port. Although, this is as much detail as you need for this article, I will post another blog on Wi-Fi meshes and why they are so cool.

Wi-Fi

Unless you live in the outback or in northern Canada, you are probably very familiar with Wi-Fi. We use it every day for just about everything in our lives. With regards to your Smart Home, however, Wi-Fi, and some of the additional technologies below, becomes critical to the smooth running of all of your devices. Everything from TV’s, Smart Home Hubs, certain devices like Garage door openers or Solar systems, will all use your home’s Wi-Fi connection to communicate back to their home servers. This is what allows you to open your garage door in California from London. Your garage door has a Wi-Fi transmitter that is talking on your home network that then connects and talks to the main servers for whatever company you are using for your Garage door opener. (This can be a little sketchy from a security issue, but again, another blog at another time) Additionally, some % of your Smart Home devices will communicate to the hub using Wi-Fi. In fact, Savant, the sophisticated AV Control system, uses Wi-Fi for all of it’s installed devices types. Control4, by contrast, uses Wi-Fi to communicate “home” to your support vendor or the main company, but then uses Zigbee inside your house for all of it’s devices. Wi-Fi is considered a fast, high-data transfer protocol that can move large amounts of data on your home network across pretty significant distances. The further you get away from the central hub/controller, the slower it gets, but for most homes, a single Wi-Fi source can delivery speeds up in the Gb/s range pretty easily and consistently. Confused yet? Keep reading.

Z-Wave

Z-Wave, introduced in 1999, was developed for smaller data packets over shorter distances. Because the chips required to do this are so tiny, it’s a perfect application for small devices such as lightbulbs, light switches, outlets that don’t really need to send much more information than “am I on or am I off”. (Your not downloading recipes from Pinterest using Z-Wave.) Another cool feature of Z-Wave is it’s built in “mesh” capability. As you install more and more Z-Wave devices in your home, they all talk to each other and extend their network. What does that mean? Well Z-Wave is pretty low power, less than 60-90 feet or so. Enough, maybe to get to your Wi-Fi router then out to servers so you can see it on the phone, but of course, all of your outlets and light switches may not be within that distance. As long as one of your devices is within this distance, the next device can be say another 20 feet away, but it connects to the first device you installed and eventually, as you install more little Z-Wave devices around your home, a little zig-zagging mesh is built so that all of your devices, even ones that may be 200-300 feet way, can still communicate their simple information all the way back to your Wi-Fi router. (If you could see all of the connections in your home, it would probably look like a series of lasers in one of those Mission Impossible movies inside an art museum.) This is my most recommended device technology vs. even Wi-Fi, Zigbee or Bluetooth because it’s fast, you can have hundreds of devices and most of the devices out there have a version of Z-Wave. (This is not the case with the other technologies.) If you have a choice, go with Z-Wave, it’s simply better.

Zigbee

This is the same type of technology as Z-Wave with the goal of transmitting small data amounts of slightly more distance than Z-Wave. Again, Zigbee can great a mesh network with other devices to extend that distance even further which will be fine for most applications and most homes. The only downsides to Zigbee are there doesn’t seem to be as many devices that support it, and you are limited in the amount of devices it can support on a single network, about half that of Z-Wave. As mentioned earlier, Control4 devices all rely on this standard for their branded devices, I’ve used them and they work great. Additionally, if you implement a Smart Home hub technology like Samsung Smarthings, you just expanded your list of available devices because it can handle all communication tech.

Bluetooth

Last, but not least, is Bluetooth. This is another communication technology that falls somewhere between Z-Wave/Zigbee and Wi-Fi. Bluetooth can handle much bigger data rates, but only for very short distances. This is why Bluetooth is great for all of your personal networking connections like wireless headphones, or devices connecting to your phone wirelessly. It’s great because all of those devices are naturally very close to your source, like your phone. In fact, 10 feet is about as far as it goes reliably. So, this isn’t really a great solution for many of the devices in your home, but you will run into it, typically with appliances, which again, are naturally all relatively close to each other. (Move your refrigerator into the garage though, and no bueno!)

FINAL THOUGHTS

Hopefully this article gave you some insight, and enough detail, to understand the challenges building a Smart Home set of devices and technology. Mine is still a work in progress because although I have 100% central control of my AV with Savant and about 80% central control of my devices with Samsung Smarthings, I still have to navigate a myriad of apps (about 18) to keep everything working great. Luckily I don’t have to go into most of those apps very often, but for many of you, it would drive you nuts. Take your time trying new technologies, it can be pretty cool. I love Amazon Alexa and Ring, in particular, as really easy to use and basic control devices for a lot of my Smart Home features. As you start getting used to even these two simple Smart Home devices, add a Nest or Ecobee thermostat control and then start venturing into other devices. You will be surprised at how much of a Smart Home you can build on your own if you read the manual and are patient. Have fun out there, and as always, feel free to add comments if you liked this story.

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